The Lunch Lady, Anne Cooper, was on The Daily Show the other night defending Michelle Obama for putting in a vegetable garden at the White House. Yes, you read it right; she was defending her from criticism by the American Council for Science and Health, the infamous front group for the biggest petroleum, chemical and food processing companies on the planet. ACSH felt Michelle’s garden cast an unflattering light on chemicals. This made great fodder for the toxic wit of Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee (watch the video here ). But I digress—as did the interview. Luckily, Lunch Lady got the last word.

Lunch Lady, a chef, has made it her life’s work to encourage schools to feature as many farm-fresh and (where practical) organic fruits and vegetables on the lunch menu as possible. She’s succeeded in several school districts in changing the way we feed our children, no small task considering the powerful corporate forces she’s up against—giant food processors and distributors hawking artificially cheap “heat and eat” French fries, macaroni and cheese, beef patties and desserts laden with salt, sugar and fat.

Her Web site, Lunch Lessons, offers ways to get more healthy foods into kids’ schools, plus great tips for all of us who want our kids to develop good eating habits at home. Here are a few basics to get you started, along with some recipes the whole family will love.

1. Take your kids shopping with you.
We don’t all live near farms or farmers' markets, so it’s not easy for our children to feel a connection with good, whole, unprocessed foods. One way to help them learn is to make a point of taking them grocery shopping with you. Take them when you’re not in a hurry, and spend time not in the snacks aisle but where the fresh, unprocessed foods are—the produce, meat and fish departments, for example. Be sure to bring home a variety of food items, including lots of fruits and vegetables, fish, dairy and whole grains. Pick some items you know they like as well as some they may have never tried, and add those to the next meal or snack. For example, learn how to make a Purple Power Smoothie using a recipe from Alexandra Jamieson, chef at Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.

2. Make mealtime special.
Sit down and enjoy your food. Take time to savor flavors. Children should never eat while walking around. If your children are old enough to understand, explain that mealtimes are special family times and it is important that everyone sit down to eat and talk together. Make a ritual out of dinner and give everyone a special task—maybe even let each child have one night a week to plan and help make dinner. Have the kids set the table. Cloth napkins and real glasses make the meal a bit more formal and are better for the environment. Candles can set a calming tone and show kids that mealtime is special. A classic dessert can make it special too; try Jamieson's fabulous recipe for Rice and Berry Pudding.

3. Don’t be a short-order cook.
Children take their time warming up to new things, and if you keep giving them the old stand-bys they’re not going to branch out and explore new foods. Be patient. Most research says that it takes an average of 10 to 12 exposures to a new food before a child will try it out, unless he or she is involved in cooking and gardening projects. Learning about food and cooking in an active way helps breed a sense of culinary adventure. Make the same dinner for everyone in the family, putting some foods on the plate that your children like and something that is new. If they don’t touch the unfamiliar food, don’t worry about it—and definitely don’t make an argument out of it. Try again the next week, and again the week after that. Eventually they’ll surprise you by at least tasting that new food.

4. Don’t buy into marketing for kids.
Kids don’t need frozen chicken nuggets, French fries, macaroni and cheese, and pizza to keep them happy. And those kinds of foods certainly don’t make for healthy children. Avoid highly processed foods at all costs; they are loaded with chemicals, synthetic fats, additives, artificial sweeteners and food colorings. Start talking to your children early in their lives about what constitutes a good diet and why it’s important for them to avoid foods like the ones mentioned above. Even a 3-year-old can grasp why sugary sodas aren’t good for you and why we shouldn’t eat foods with lots of fat at every meal. Kids love brightly colored foods because advertising tells them those are "kid foods"—and they see 10,000 commercials a year! But try to resist their begging. Do as the food writer Michael Pollan suggests and buy real food, the kind you don’t see advertised on TV.

5. Let kids help in the kitchen.
Encourage your children to help out in the kitchen. Invest in a stool or a child-height counter that allows your children to see what you are doing and gives them access to the food. If a child is interested in doing more in the kitchen, don’t automatically assume that the task will be too difficult or dangerous. Know your child’s limits and help her achieve success by providing support and encouragement in a safe setting. Kids love eating food they created, like Popcorn Soup! Involve your child in the cooking or preparation process and she will be more likely to eat new foods, including fruits and vegetables.

Check out chef Ann Cooper's post about the National School Lunch Program on NRDC's Greenlight Web site.


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