But I should have known better when I saw the looks from the wistful children as I squirted mustard on my school lunch tray. Or maybe I should have noticed there was no mustard in the serving line or situated at any table.
Caught red-handed, I stashed the bottle back in my purse – feeling somewhat like I had brought a pack of cigarettes into the school instead of something as healthy as mustard.
It was corn dog day at Burrton Elementary School, and Kaci – my kindergarten daughter who would eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner if I would let her – wanted me to join her and her twin sister, Brett, for lunch.
I hadn’t had a school lunch in years – in fact, probably not since junior high school, because I hardly touched them in high school. Nonetheless, on a recent late spring day, I found myself standing in line
with those half my height, waiting for my tray of food. And deep in my purse was the bottle of mustard.
I’ve read the stories about Michelle Obama’s renovation of the school lunch program in an effort to tackle obesity. The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants more vegetables and fewer fats. This school year, federal officials set limits on calories and sodium and phased in whole grains. They set limits on meat but expanded portions of fruits and vegetables.
I’ve heard the complaints, as well – largely that there aren’t enough calories for active high schoolers, that the portions are too small, and that some condiments like salt are frowned upon.
Not quite sure what I was up against, I decided it was better to be prepared than suffer. Corn dogs, after all, can hardly be digested without a generous helping of mustard.
The family school lunch outing began my quest to find out what Mrs. Obama has against mustard, among other condiments. Mustard, after all, doesn’t have calories. It’s known to boost metabolism and it’s helpful for digestion.
Moreover, it gives a little zing to bland foods. OK, so it is true. I have a zealous love of mustard – from mustard sandwiches to mustard with a little corn dog, hot dog or French fry.
So I sat in Burrton head cook Debbie Matlack’s office last week, watching her pore over a book as thick as any college chemistry book. It was laden with recipes and guidelines for three different ages – outlining how much fat, sodium and other measurements she has to maintain per lunch each week.
For instance, a student in kindergarten through fifth grade can’t have more than 643 calories per lunch and a weekly sodium level of 1,202 milligrams.
Grades 6 through 8 can have 667 calories and 1,223 milligrams of sodium. High school students are limited to 814 calories and 1,339 milligrams of sodium.
Thus, it’s all about the weekly numbers, said Matlack, who notes she’s still trying to get used to the new school lunch rules. It’s not that mustard is bad, but following the USDA recipes closely, it’s easier to leave out mustard rather than go over on sodium for the week and get in trouble.
One teaspoon of mustard has 56 milligrams of sodium. One tablespoon has 169 milligrams.
It’s not just counting sodium in mustard, she said. She no longer puts salt in mashed potatoes. For a few main courses, she puts a tablespoon of salt in a recipe that serves 220 students. She can serve dressing with salad – but students can’t have more than an ounce and it has to be fat-free.
They can’t have butter on their rolls, but jelly is fine, she said. In addition, in the next few years, things will only get tougher.
The federal government’s nutritional guidelines are expected to get stricter, she said.
The 1A school’s head cook admits she never expected to be a dietitian or nutrition director when she took the job.
Yet at many small schools, head cooks are now learning the ropes of a nutritionist – a position most large Kansas schools fund to staff, said Burrton Superintendent Jeff Shearon.
And Matlack said that as she learns more, she can adjust the recipes so she can serve more mustard with corn dogs or butter for a roll. In coming weeks, she will take a class to learn more about the government lunch and breakfast regulations. Breakfast guidelines will be implemented next year.
Do new school lunch rules go too far? Not necessarily. I can see why some things need to change.
However, it doesn’t address the fact that kids these days are more sedentary and many are likely to go home after school and eat unhealthy snacks as they watch television and play video games.
I will admit I’m glad my school lunch days are over. Moreover, I’ll still smother my corn dogs with mustard.