Potato politics

And here I thought that sex ed was the most controversial topic in our nation’s schools. But that’s nothing compared to what’s going on in the cafeteria…

The other day, my editor sent me an article from the Baltimore Sun discussing some possible changes to the school lunches there. As part of some of the proposed guidelines under the National School Lunch Program, cafeterias may only be allowed to offer students one cup of starchy vegetables per week. And those “starchy vegetables” include corn, peas, and the item that has everyone up in arms…potatoes.

Apparently limiting potatoes presents quite a challenge for many schools. They contend that potatoes are a “popular, filling, low-cost, and nutritious” part of the current school lunch program.

Well, just because they’re popular doesn’t make them the right thing to serve children (or anyone else for that matter).Yes, they may be filling, but consider what they’re filling you with: empty starchy calories.

Not surprisingly, potato growers, aren’t thrilled about this proposal either. They claim the USDA is relying on outdated ideas about potatoes. Really? Are there new ideas about potatoes that I’m not aware of? Have they somehow changed chemical composition?

No matter how you try to spin it, there’s simply nothing nutritious about potatoes. Even a supposedly “healthy” baked potato packs a whopping 63 grams of carbohydrates and 300 calories. And, sadly, the No. 1 “vegetable” consumed by kids in this country is the French fry. When you also consider the fact that 2/3 of our nation’s children are overweight or obese, it’s hard not to see a link there.

Of course, I’m not so naïve as to think that kids are going to forget that French fries ever existed and start lining up with glee for Brussels sprouts. But there are ways to change kids’ eating habits without making it seem like torture. (In fact, telling them they “have to” eat vegetables and that they’re “not allowed” to have potatoes is a surefire way to get them to hate all things green).

First and foremost, as I’ve mentioned before, get them involved! Let them choose some new vegetables they’re curious to try (you might be surprised at what they’re willing to eat if given the choice)! Let them help you prepare them by peeling them, sprinkling them with seasonings, etc. Don’t insist on a “clean plate” but do encourage them to take a few bites and give each new veggie a fair shot.

And, if all else fails, I’ve never met a kid yet who didn’t like veggies and dip. Cucumbers, pepper strips, snow peas, celery, even green beans are all great, easy options you can keep in the fridge all the time.

Granted, these suggestions don’t solve the ongoing debate over school lunches. But perhaps the whole idea would be less controversial if kids were already accustomed to eating more vegetables and fewer potatoes.

After all, good nutrition starts at home.