Guess who I had coffee with last week…

I apologize for missing some blog posts some days and writing short blurbs others. I hope you don’t mind. I’ve been busy.

A couple weeks ago I received an email that someone wanted to meet me. I worked with one of his assistants to find a time and location that worked. And that’s how I ended up having coffee with Senator Dick Durbin.

I admit it: I was a little starstruck. Going on TV is fun and all, but meeting a senator? To me that’s more important. We chatted about school lunch and how it needs to be reformed. He mentioned that when he tours schools, he asks to see the cafeteria. Senator Durbin has a passion for school lunch reform –who knew?

It’s the food that needs attention but also the time allotted for eating as well as when children eat. Before meeting the senator, I chatted at length with his assistant, who happens to have two children who go to schools within Chicago Public School system. If I remember correctly, both of her children eat lunch sometime around 10:30 am. Her eldest has stopped eating lunch because no one is hungry that early. Last year at my school I noticed that many six graders didn’t eat much from their school lunches, but I was naive to hope that wasn’t widespread. Sigh.

Full disclosure: I’ve voted for Senator Durbin so I might be a fan. I asked if it would be okay if I could get a picture with him and he said it would be no problem. I also gave him a book and signed it to him. What a month this has been!

(Note: I made sure it was okay to post the photo on the blog)

CSA Box Week 10

Did you miss CSA Box Week 9? Yeah, we were out of town and had our friends pick it up. So this is our last “official” CSA box! We have applied for the “extended season,” which means we will be getting a few more boxes in November and December, but I’m bummed that the main CSA is over.

I’m so glad we decided to be part of community shared agriculture this year for the first time. We were part of the CSA from Angelic Organics. I was challenged by the diverse offerings that came to us every other week and it made me a better cook. Also I get seasonality in a way I never did before. I definitely recommend being a part of a CSA and we plan on doing it again next year.  Keep in mind that we got the half share — a full share would be a box every week. I don’t know how I would manage that much produce!

Chard and two bags of spinach

A bag of potatoes and some long garlic

Two bunches of lettuce and celeriac root(?)

Squash and brussel sprouts

More brussel sprouts and daikon radishes

I picked up the box after work on a very rainy day. When I got home and was unloading the box from the car, the box was so wet and soggy that it fell apart in the driveway. I had a huge heap of produce right on the blacktop and the white squash rolled under my car. I had to dig around in my trunk for the scraper to be able to retrieve the squash from under my car. I raced inside to get some bags to bag up my produce in the rain. The next morning I found a little bundle of herbs by the car door, but I didn’t recognize what it was. I hope that was all I lost!

When I first saw the “white carrots,” I immediately thought that I had jicama. I was so excited that I chopped of a bit and ate it. It was a radish and it was so strong that my eyes watered. My son thinks radishes are “spicy” even though when we first brought had some in our CSA box he liked them. Strange.

Here’s my favorite brussel sprouts recipe (Ina Garten). Seriously the best. When I prepared them that way, my son asked for more. That meal he ate more brussel sprouts than my husband or I did. Made me wish that I could serve brussel sprouts every week, but alas I don’t imagine they are in season all year long.

Accepting suggestions on how to prepare the squash, the celeriac root, and the radishes.

Guest blog: Camp food

Jenna Cowan White works for Fowler Camp and Retreat Center in Speculator, NY.  In the “off” season she teaches Family and Consumer Science to middle schoolers, helping them to examine their own food choices and how they impact the world around them.  Jenna lives with her husband, newborn daughter, Murphy the dog and a handful of chickens in upstate NY.

After the last bell rings, school’s out for summer!  And what do the kids do?  Many of them participate in a rite of passage…summer camp.  From Maine to California kids travel in droves to camps that last for a week, a month or the whole summer.  One of the major stigmas in summer camp circles is the idea of “camp food”.  It becomes the butt of many jokes, it is sometimes unrecognizable and often scores low on the “tasty” scale.  Camp food is less stringently regulated than school food, which leaves many to wonder…what are our kids eating at camp?

Having worked at summer camps for 25 years, as well as six years teaching outdoor education at camps during the school year, I have eaten A LOT of camp food.

There is a prevalent cultural habit of treating unhealthy food as a reward.  When we go to a birthday party we have chips, cake and soda, if we eat all of our spinach we can have a cookie, when we go to summer camp it’s vacation so let’s have chicken nuggets and tater tots, hamburgers and fries.  All this just leaves us feeling miserable. Eleven years ago I decided I’d had enough.  I had come to the realization that if I was feeling so bad after eating this food, what could it possibly be doing to benefit our campers?

So I wrote a proposal to our camp director that outlined some ideas regarding transforming our summer kitchen into more of a whole foods kitchen.  Some of these ideas included eliminating “bug juice” from the menu (you know the kind, open packet and add water to find some gloriously colored beverage appearing before your eyes), taking out half of the desserts, offering a full salad bar at every meal and always having fresh fruit available.  The camp director seemed intrigued with the idea and it fit perfectly with our larger camp ideals and goals, so his response was “let’s give it a try!”   His next question was, “do you want to be the cook next summer?”

I replied with an emphatic “Yes!” that was also filled with nervous excitement because I knew the task was a large one.  We feed an average of 200 people a week three meals a day.  The task was more than just changing the food on the plate, it was also changing the way people thought about the food and the role food plays in our lives, even beyond their time at camp.

School lunches and summer camp food have become so institutionalized that people who run these kitchens don’t necessarily need to know much about cooking (not to say they don’t, but they wouldn’t need to) because it’s as easy as add water, stir, and voila!  I really wanted to actually make the food.  Nourishment is so much more than filling the belly and I wanted to serve food that I was proud of, that I’d put heart and sweat into, and that I could stand behind proudly.  This does not come in a box.  We’ve been able buy the majority of our whole foods ingredients from a natural foods supplier and use our typical food service supplier for items that are just too far out of our budget or unavailable from the whole foods supplier along with some basic food service needs (i.e. plastic wrap, etc).

Each summer over the last 10 years we’ve been able to increase the amount of whole foods offerings.  There were multitudes of people who thought I was insane and didn’t think this would work.  People have been surprised to see that not only does it work, but kids and staff alike LOVE it and are noticeably healthier for it.  The camp nurse reports that the number of campers coming in with stomach aches and intestinal complaints have all but stopped.  Summer staff have been able to better sustain their level of energy through many difficult weeks of work.  The food budget actually decreased.  We are able to handle a multitude of food related allergies with relative ease because we know exactly what goes into the food, and can easily take something out if we need to.  Here’s a checklist of the specific changes in the way we do food over the last 10 years.

  • Fresh salad/breakfast bar at all three meals
  • Homemade bread for dinners, sandwiches, and French toast
  • Less meat
  • Homemade turkey breakfast sausage
  • Fresh fruit available all day
  • Creative and homemade vegetarian options every time meat is served
  • Less sugary juices
  • No more soda at the camp store
  • Eliminated half the desserts and make the desserts we do serve from scratch
  • Homemade pizza crust and whole grain English muffins
  • Switching from white rice to brown
  • Using real eggs!
  • Homemade pancakes, macaroni and cheese, home fries, veggie burgers, salad dressings, granola, soups, stuffing, spaghetti and pizza sauces, etc.

We have made great strides in our food service in the last 10 years and we are very proud of what we serve.  I am always amazed when I talk to people who just don’t seem to understand how important real food is.  Two examples come to mind.  In my second year cooking at the camp I was having a conversation with a local restaurant owner who couldn’t believe that we used real potatoes for mashed potatoes.  He kept telling me about instant potatoes in a pouch and all you have to do is boil in the bag, cut open and serve.  Forget the food atrocity happening here, where is the feeling one gets from a hard day’s work with satisfaction on a job well done?

The second example is from this past summer.  I was taking a tour of another camp kitchen.  The food service director was asking me where I  found my recipes and I told her I generally take recipes from my own kitchen and multiply them.  She went on to tell me that she found an old box with army food recipes from the 1950’s and to this day they use these recipes.  She claimed that the cook they hired last summer was too creative and bought all sorts of spices that she threw away this year because “kids don’t like spices” and “they won’t eat things that aren’t hot dogs and tater tots”.  I beg to differ. Our campers enjoy spices in their homemade spaghetti sauce, in their taco (turkey) meat and beans, they love the tofu wings (served as an alternate option to chicken nuggets) and they beg for tofu potpie.

We need to give kids more credit and we need to give them the opportunity to eat and enjoy healthy, real food.  We certainly aren’t perfect and I don’t claim that we do everything right, but we are certainly on the right path!  When people come to our camp, the food is not the butt of jokes.  Campers look forward to the food because they know it will not only taste great, but also is made thoughtfully and nutritiously with their best interest in mind.

It’s no secret that our nation’s food system needs to change and there are some high profile people who have brought the issues of our failing food system to the forefront of the public spotlight.  However, I truly believe that it is the daily efforts of regular people in regular places, in their own corners of the country that are going to make the most difference.  If only 10 people each summer go home from our camp thinking differently about food and making some changes of their own at home, then we’ve made a difference that is rippling throughout our communities.

Thanks Jenna for sharing your experience with us — I couldn’t agree more! -Mrs Q

Anonymous no longer

That’s Monica Eng and I on the stage at the Chicago Theater for Chicago Live! a weekly WGN Radio show produced by the Chicago Tribune, in partnership with The Second City. I had an absolute blast being on the show and of course hanging out with the uber-cool Monica Eng was a plus. You can watch our interview on stage, if you like. I love the format of the show (very much an old school variety show with comedic interludes by The Second City no less). I would love to see emulated in big and small towns (like my small hometown in Wisconsin). It’s even more immediate than the internet to have the people in front of you.

It’s taking me a little while to make the adjustment from anonymous to me being known. While doing some media for the book (before and after work of course), some days I feel very bold with my opinions, but other days I’ve felt more reserved. It depends on the day. It depends on how much sleep I got the night before. My son has gotten his first cold of the season so there hasn’t been a lot of sleep happening.

Not only am I learning how to blog as myself, but I’m also learning how to bring Mrs Q and her passion for child nutrition to my regular job. I’ve been so good at compartmentalizing that it’s all new. Many of you have wondered how my coworkers are handling having me turn into a school food reform activist right in front of them. Well, it might surprise you but most of them don’t even know. I am not a big self-promoter and I’m in new schools this year by choice. I’m the speech pathologist and still making friends while learning the schools’ cultures. Of course no one got an official memo about the blog and the book. But my closest coworkers from new and old schools are thrilled. There has been a lot of “You go, girl!” and “I’m proud of you.” Revealing myself has led to interesting conversations about school food with people I never knew had passionate opinions. To say that they have  been supportive is an understatement. But then we move on, back to our work — there’s no shortage of work at Chicago Public Schools.

Lunch Wrap Up: Week of Oct 17th

For those of you who are interested in gluten free diets or you are new to the blog, check out my Q and A with Central Restaurant Products.

My son and I are both gluten and dairy free. I discuss my own diet in the Q and A, but I don’t mention my son. Charlie has been dairy free since September 2010 and gluten free since October 2010. Why did I do that? Well, Charlie had chronic ear infections, which cleared up after going dairy free, but he was then diagnosed with asthma in September. I didn’t want to have to give him two daily medications per day. At the same time I didn’t know how I would toilet train a child with chronic diarrhea. So I changed his diet and there went his breathing problems and his GI issues. I regret that I didn’t get him tested for Celiac disease prior to taking him off of gluten, but the dairy test had been negative and the allergist thought I was crazy. I tried a gluten free diet only on a whim and I didn’t expect it to work at all. Instead, it changed everything pretty much right away.

 Charlie’s lunches

Mandarin oranges; bacon; carrots from our garden; spiced rice; sliced pears (farmer’s market)

We were at Trader Joe’s and my son saw the bags of mandarin oranges and he was sold. So they aren’t local, but they are a favorite. I grew those carrots though! Child care menu: Chicken Alfredo, Elbow Pasta, Winter Blend, Pineapple Chunks, Mini Wheat Hamburger Bun

Homemade pizza; sliced pears (farmer’s market); spinach (CSA), shredded carrots, mandarin oranges; applesauce,; crackers

I had a craving for pizza so I made a gluten and dairy free one. This one has beef on it, but I bought the beef at a farmer’s market. I have to say that the beef tasted like nothing I have ever tasted before. The beef had almost a “gamey” taste to it — is that true beef should taste like? This was straight from a farm in Wisconsin. My husband didn’t notice a difference, but to me it was apparent right away. I also used goat cheese and spinach from our CSA. Child care menu: Cheesy Chicken, Diced Parsley Potatoes, Broccoli, Fresh Pear, Wheat Dinner Roll

Mandarin oranges, sliced apples (farmer’s market); spinach (CSA) and carrots (my garden); hard boiled eggs; crunchy green beans; crackers

My son helped me pull the little carrots out of the ground and he was so stoked. Child care menu: BBQ Turkey, Steamed Rice, Oregon Blend, Banana, Rye Bread

Pasta with meat sauce (beef from farmer’s market); mandarin oranges; spinach (CSA), carrots (farmer’s market), yellow green beans (farmer’s market); pear sauce; breadsticks

I split the yellow green beans in half because my son likes to eat the little beans inside. Also I tried Trader Joe’s “pear sauce” but my son was not a fan. Guess you’ll be seeing those in my lunches. Child care menu: Penne Pasta & Meat Sauce, 3 Way Blend, Cinnamon Sliced Pears, Wheat Bread 

Bagel with smoked salmon; sliced apples (farmer’s market), spinach (CSA), shredded carrots, golden raisins; pretzels; apple/strawberry sauce

I was running low on ideas so the kid got apples two different ways! Child care menu: BBQ Meatballs, Augratin Potatoes, Peas, Tropical Fruit, Rye Bread

My lunches

Spiced rice with bacon and pistachios; plums; pepitas; roasted golden beets

I don’t mind eating bacon fat. I’ve decided that fat doesn’t make me fat, but instead keeps me feeling full so I don’t binge on my favorite trigger foods (i.e. cookies). Also the golden beets all turned black after I roasted them! Any hints on how to avoid that next time? I also sauteed the beets’ greens and they were better than spinach or kale prepared that same way (don’t get me wrong, I love my spinach and kale, just not sauteed in a pan).

 Homemade pizza; plums; spinach with shredded carrots

I used daiya cheese on one pizza and goat cheese on the other. I know a lot of you think that the daiya cheese is a weird non-food. When you are looking for a cheese replacement, you’ll try anything. And guess what? I left this lunch on the counter at home. I realized this on the way to work so I was able to call my husband and have him put it in the fridge for the next day. I left my water bottles at home too so I was really devastated. I could have bought school lunch that day, but I just didn’t want to go through that again. Instead I ate a lunch of almonds and rice cakes. The next day I finally ate my lunch.

 Tuna salad sandwich with spinach, apple (farmer’s market); carrot and yellow green beans (farmer’s market); KIND bars

I love tuna salad!

 Bagel, spinach, golden raisins; smoked salmon; pretzels; KIND bar

 I’ve always been a bagel and lox fan. Love salmon.


Family Wanted for Childhood Obesity Film

If you’ve ever wanted the opportunity to tell your family’s food story to a larger audience, here’s your chance. Just so you know, the producers making this film are not “fly-by-night” kinda folks. They make serious films that reveal personal stories with dignity in ways that inspire and educate others. Although I am not in any way involved with this film or any film for that matter, I have to tell you that randomly I had the chance to meet the production team in person last year. It’s a wonderful bunch of people and I think that if your family was chosen, it would be an experience of a lifetime. Here’s the information and keep in mind that time is of the essence:

An Emmy-award-winning team at a highly regarded TV company is looking for subjects for a documentary on childhood obesity. They are hoping to find the family of an overweight middle school or high school student that is concerned about their child’s weight and working to improve the healthfulness and quality of the food available in the school cafeteria, even if the parents and the school district are just getting started on this quest.They would like to speak with interested parents as soon as possible. Please email the producers at

Guest Blogger: Fed Up With Halloween

I am very excited to be a guest blogger for Fed Up With Lunch.  My name is Dave Soleil and I am a stay-at-home dad in Georgia where childhood obesity is the second highest in the nation.  Last year on Halloween, I got fed up too.

As children in the neighborhood made the annual rounds to trick-or-treat, I saw kids with pillow cases three-quarters packed with candy.  I saw overweight parents driving cars along side their children because their condition made it too difficult to walk around the neighborhood.  I heard stories of children attending multiple pre-Halloween “trunk-or-treat” events hosted by various youth organizations.  I also talked with health-conscious neighbors who were too embarrassed to let their kids trick-or-treat because the day focused entirely on binge eating candy.

As I dropped another box of raisins into a vast sea of candy, I felt alone and ashamed of the unhealthy environment we had created for our children.  I decided then that I would dedicate myself to creating the healthy world that our kids deserve.

I wanted to bring communities together to raise awareness about childhood obesity and I wanted it to happen quickly like… a flash mob.  So, The Movement was born. The Flash Mob for Healthier Kids will take place during the week of Halloween, Oct. 24th – 31st.  Flash mobs will perform in towns and cities around the country in support of healthier kids.  The Rockstar Nutritionist, Jill Jayne is providing great music and choreography.  You pick the time and place that works for you and send us the video which we will edit together with all the other flash mobs videos.  Whether you are three people or three thousand people, we want you to use this opportunity to bring people and organizations together in support of healthier kids.

In addition to The Movement, we are also launching Healthy Halloween House.  Our web site has a parents’ pledge and many healthy and non-food trick-or-treat alternatives.  Our pledge is:

“As a Healthy Halloween House, I pledge to provide a Trick-or-Treat alternative for kids that is not candy or junk food.  I believe we can create a healthier world for our kids that strengthens our community without contributing to the epidemic of childhood obesity.”

We are also offering Healthy Halloween House signs as a free download or as yard signs at cost.  We are even encouraging neighborhoods to try and get more than 50% participation to become a Healthy Halloween Neighborhood!

According to the CDC, kids born after the year 2000 are predicted to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.  However, I don’t believe in probabilities.  I believe in possibilities.  We can create a healthier world for our kids.  It is time to provide fun and thoughtful alternatives year round that don’t make our kids sick.  I hope you will join us and help spread the word.

As I like to say, “Eat your pumpkin.  Let your candy rot on the porch.”