Learning Through Food: Calhoun's Lunch Program

By Chef Bobo, Executive Chef & Director of Food Service

How about learning about food through experience – and by that I mean eat it!

I’ve always thought of our lunches at Calhoun as more than lunch. Our lunches offer an opportunity to learn about food, i.e., tastes, textures, portion size, freshness and, most importantly, deliciousness! To further the experience we include foods from other countries to teach what kids in other cultures eat for lunch. Eating a healthy, balanced meal is a good way to learn about how your body reacts to eating real food vs. highly processed food. What happens during the afternoon is that a healthy meal boosts energy for learning and playing.

In our lunch program at Calhoun, we try to teach kids so many things about food. Early on, it probably seems a little overwhelming for the younger kids. But as they taste and experiment, we find that they eventually start requesting the same foods they were hesitant to try earlier. Little by little, their palates expand and they learn about exciting experiences through taste.

Calhoun chefs prepare lunch

I remember the first time we made cauliflower soup (now one of our most popular soups). The next day, a mother of a second grader came to me and took me by the collar and with her finger in my face told me, “You’re going to give me your recipe for the cauliflower soup you made yesterday. My son has never been willing to even touch cauliflower, much less eat it, and he loved that soup! Now he wants me to make it!” Of course, I gave her that recipe and eventually many more. That recipe is on the Calhoun website, but I’m also enclosing the recipe for cauliflower soup in this blog post.

In a previous job I worked for an airline and had the chance to travel to some 60 countries. The exciting part of each trip was experiencing the cuisine of the country I was visiting. I usually ate at small neighborhood places often run by families. It felt like I was tapping into the soul of the people in that country. It was both satisfying and highly educational. In our lunch program we like to offer some foreign cuisines for kids to try so they can learn about different cultures through food. As part of our program we look for –and are proud that we can attract –chefs from various ethnic backgrounds who are able to translate the foods of their cultures authentically. They know how to make the foods of their childhood taste really good!

Recently the New York Times published an article by Erica Sweeney titled, “How to Teach Children about Healthy Eating, without Food Shaming.” I really enjoyed and learned from the article. It supports so much of what I believe is important when feeding kids and what we practice in Calhoun’s lunch program. Here are some takeaways from that article that I think are worth reviewing:

  • Kids eat healthier when their parents do, so it’s important for parents to model healthy eating habits.
  • It’s important to eat together as a family as often as possible. This provides a great opportunity not only to model healthy eating habits but also to have conversations during the meal about the importance of healthy eating. In this regard, I publish a blog post every evening around 6pm explaining the lunch menu for the next day. What a great opportunity to discuss tomorrow’s lunch menu!
  • Get kids involved with menu planning, shopping and even in preparation of meals. That increases understanding of healthy, balanced meals as well as developing a commitment to eat.
  • Keep conversations about food positive. Encourage children to try something before they say they don’t like it. We had a student in the third grade last year who told me that she made a promise to her mom to try something new every day. She did! When she would come through the serving line we had an ongoing conversation about what she was trying today. She seemed to be having fun with it. She didn’t like everything and that’s okay. She at least tried things.
  • It’s a good idea to regularly include “less-than-healthy” foods, like dessert, in a meal plan as a normal part of children’s diets. In our lunch program we offer fresh fruit every day as dessert but we also prepare a delicious baked dessert once per week. Calhoun kids seldom ask about dessert unless five days go by and they realize they haven’t had one yet. It’s important that we stick to that one-per-week plan so that we don’t upset our own balanced menu plan – and if we happen to be late, I love that kids call us out on it!

The New York Times article offers some interesting tips on how to help educate your kids about food. On the other side, I think it would be interesting to know how you go about introducing your kids to foods that are new and unfamiliar. It would be interesting to share your ideas with other Calhoun parents. Let me know and we’ll share your process with the community. We can make this a marketplace for ideas.

We are looking forward to another school year of delighting kids with familiar tastes as well as new tastes, all of it healthy. For kids with allergies or any other eating restrictions, we’ll take good care of them. For picky eaters, while we encourage kids to try various things, we don’t force them. We will try to have something for them to eat that they are comfortable with, so that they have some energy for their afternoon activities. Over the years we have noticed that picky eaters eventually come around once they become comfortable with the surroundings and understand that the food tastes good!

If you have any questions about Calhoun’s lunch program, or suggestions, please don’t hesitate to contact me at chefbobo@calhoun.org.

Try Chef Bobo's recipes at home. View recipes for Cauliflower Soup & Cajun Catfish and find more on our recipes page