This past Saturday, Real Food for Kids – a local non-profit that advocates for healthy foods in public schools – held its 5th Culinary Challenge & Wellness Expo at a local public school. It was a super fun and educational (and tasty!) event, plus I got to hang out most of my day with a great neighbor.
Fourteen teams of middle and high school kids presented the original recipes they created, a few of which were competing for a spot in the regular school lunch menu. I was curious to see what kids would like to have served in their school cafeterias and what they would be able to come up with on a tight budget, while observing the USDA guidelines for nutrition and aiming for taste, presentation and creativity.
I was delighted with the options I found which included a gyro bowl with tzatziki, grilled chicken veggie wrap with chickpea spread and quinoa, teriyaki chicken flatbread pizza, soup, pasta and, my favorite, a chicken shawarma that was moist and packed with flavor in a soft bread that may have been a whole wheat naan (I didn’t get the recipe). From the non-competing breakfast and snack options, the fruit salsa with cinnamon tortilla crisps and the non-bake energy bite made of chocolate graham crackers, cranberries, coconut milk, white chocolate chips and sweet condensed milk rolled in coconut flakes were a big hit (the latter got my vote!). I also enjoyed seeing how the students were presenting their creations with confidence and enthusiasm, ready to answer any questions from the public.
We also had the opportunity to attend 2 of the 6 great workshops offered by celebrity chefs and experts in the food industry. My obvious first choice was “Eating to Write” with food photographer Renée Comet and Deputy Food Editor for The Washington Post, Bonnie Benwick, who together form a talented and friendly team that creates images and recipes that feel simple, natural, real and inviting. They shared tips, secrets and encouragement after enticing us with grapes lightly covered in chocolate and dusted with cocoa, the perfect mid-morning snack.
During lunch break, Rodney Taylor, Director of Food & Nutrition Services for Fairfax County Public Schools gave an inspirational talk about the changes he is implementing in our kids’ schools in partnership with local organizations, chefs, experts and business that share the same values. From salad bars to simple solutions like cutting waste by not giving our kids whole apples or oranges, but sliced, which they are more likely to eat in the short time they spend in the cafeterias. He seemed to be talking about my own kid who spends his time chatting and may never focus enough to peel an orange or gobble a whole apple. More importantly, he reminded us parents, that the work they are doing in the schools should not be undone at our homes with the often convenient and abundant unhealthy food choices.
If you are daunted by the challenge to avoid unhealthy choices, Aviva Goldfarb from The Six O’Clock Scramble (the second workshop we attended) had plenty of tips to make the family dinner time less overwhelming, such as keeping a grocery list on the fridge, shopping once a week, planning meals ahead of time and keeping a few freezer options as backup. She also demonstrated 3 simple and flavorful recipes: ranch dressing that uses greek yogurt, popcorn seasoning of butter and parmesan and a mediterranean 7 layer dinner dip that I’ll be making with my kids. She also reminded us that cooking should not be stressful. If sometimes it is too much to cook meals from scratch, there are many healthy options that we can find in supermarkets like a good quality frozen pizza.
The one tip I thought was very valuable was to make our kids in charge of preparing the meal they choose to eat and to give the person that prepares the meal a free pass on setting the table or cleaning up. My kids immediately loved the idea of being special and in charge of a whole meal and wanted their choices to come soon in the weekly schedule. Julia made orecchiette pasta (her new favorite, which she calls little shells).
She started saying that she wanted pasta with parmesan and she ended up adding olive oil, a grated tomato sauce seasoned with salt and pepper, marinated mozzarella balls (as per her brother’s suggestion) and parsley leaves (for her Mamma). She understood that, when cooking for the family, she needs to think of what others may like and that each ingredient serves a purpose and adds flavor in a different way. She was super proud of herself and happy that we enjoyed the dish. She served everyone, including herself twice. Mateus is next with pizza from scratch. I guess I’ll have to pick fish since Romas picked fondue for his day. I guess my job will now be to balance the overload of carbs and cheese on my days…
PS: you see no mozzarella balls on this plate because Mateus and I had already eaten them all by the time I took the picture. Oops. They were soooooo good, perfectly soft and creamy after being slightly heated by the pasta.
JULIA’S LITTLE SHELLS PASTA WITH TOMATO AND MOZZARELLA SAUCE:
1 package of orecchiette pasta
1 large tomato
1/2 cup of small marinated mozzarella balls
1/4 cup of parsley leaves, torn
parmesan cheese to taste
olive oil to taste
salt & pepper to taste
Boil water in a large pot with a pinch of salt and drizzle with olive oil. Cook pasta according to instructions.
While pasta is cooking, grate the tomato. Season it with salt and pepper to taste.
Drain pasta and return to pot. Drizzle with a bit of olive oil (or butter, about 1 tablespoon). Add tomato sauce and marinated mozzarella balls and stir. Sprinkle freshly grated parmesan, drizzle with more olive oil and garnish with torn parsley leaves.
Tip: next time I may suggest grating 2 tomatoes instead of one and adding minced garlic to the sauce, but this time I did not. I wanted Julia to feel that this dish was very much her own.