Day 160: hamburger and other tidbits

Today’s menu: hamburger, whole wheat buns, potato wedges, apple and a lot of ketchup

When the plastic came off over the burger compartment, there was this aroma. It was the smell of processed meat. I turned away and told myself, “Just a few more days.” To choke it down, I had to use a lot of ketchup packets on the burger. Thankfully it tasted better than it smelled.

To get that far, I used up 3 1/2 ketchup packets

I was excited to see potato wedges again (one of the new offerings this fall), but overall the potatoes were bland. I tried to eat them without ketchup but they were too dry.

I know someone who is from Poland. She is younger than me, but moved here as a young adult. One time we were talking food and she told me that she couldn’t eat American potatoes for two years after coming here. Her mother kept a vegetable garden in Poland and her mother’s potatoes tasted far superior to anything she could find in American supermarkets. She says that now that she has adjusted she can eat American potatoes just fine. Man, I’d really love to try a Polish potato!

Yes Virginia, potatoes really do have skins!

I feel like I’m breaking out of prison on Friday. Having to eat school lunch has almost been harder psychologically than physically though it has been tough in every way. I’ve blogged about how weird it is to have no control over what I eat for lunch and how that has done a number on me. Also lunch time has been stressful every school day 2010. The secrecy has been challenging, the worrying about being discovered. I just want to have a normal lunch break again!

Ketchup got everywhere
What’s the magic number? It looks like it will be 162 total school lunches eaten in 2010. It won’t be the length of the typical school year in the United States: 180 days. My district offers 170 days of instruction per school year, which would be days that school lunch is served. I worked other days that there were no students and of course no school lunch (professional development and report card days).
I ate school lunch every day that it was served and that I was in the school building. It doesn’t add up to 170 days because I took some days off. The first half of the project, from January to June, I took five days off. Those included both when my son had surgery (ear tubes) and then later my mother had some minor surgery (I didn’t blog about any of that at the time). The other days were due to my own illness or that of my son. This fall I only took off three instructional days, which were days that I was giving speeches about the project. That I haven’t had to take time off for illness is kind of remarkable.
My son has been less sick this fall, but this week he has been really ill with a bad cough. None of us are sleeping terribly well. Every time the little guy has been sick, my husband takes a day to be with him. Next year I’m going to return the favor.
That leads into my next point: buying school lunch next year. A reader wondered why I would ever buy school lunch to not eat it (and how wasteful that would be). I agree. The last thing on earth that I want to do is buy school lunch ever again. I have eaten my fill…for the rest of my life. But many of you have said “I’m going to miss your lunch posts” (you guys are sweet!) and one person even asked, “Why can’t you just continue eating school lunch for the rest of the year?” (I must remind you that I set out to do this for a calendar year, not a school year)
Knowing that you enjoy the school lunch photos, in yesterday’s blog post I offered you a consolation prize by saying I might buy lunch again but not eat it and only if it was a new menu item. The truth is that I think you have seen everything the cafeteria puts out at lunch and I’m not sure I can even buy it again in 2011…
The reason? I can’t eat it anymore! It’s not just food. If there is one thing that I’d like you to take away from this blog that is that food is not just something we ingest to fill up our tummies. Food is something magical.
When I think about my bloodstream, my heart, my brain…they are all created with molecules from the school lunches I have eaten all year long. Shooting through my veins right now are molecules of beef that was treated with antibiotics (29 million pounds of antibiotics was fed to animals in 2009), apples with pesticide residue, vegetables including potatoes grown with chemical fertilizer, whole wheat buns that might not be as healthy as I thought, high fructose corn syrup in the ketchup, and maybe a dye or two. I don’t know all the specific ingredients that are in the school lunches, but now they are now my body’s ingredients, my fuel, my problem.
I’m getting super dramatic here, but I have learned this year that food is more important to me than I ever imagined. I’m forever indebted to myself for acting on this crazy idea in the first place. I like my new relationship with food. It’s far more healthy!
Check out this video with Elmo and Mr. Sam Kass, Head Chef at the White House. It’s cheesy, but now I want a burrito!
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49 thoughts on “Day 160: hamburger and other tidbits

  1. Best post yet!! You're dead on! Everything you eat makes up your cells – do you want hormone laden meat & genetically modified corn running through your veins triggering your immune system? Nope! So impressed by how far you've come! From one gluten free, natural food lover to another – keep growing – it gets even better from here! – Kate

  2. Too bad the students don't have the same luxury you have to stop eating school lunches. It's great you're so excited to be done, but I hope you don't forget about the kids, which is why I think you started this blog and why I love to read it.

  3. If you want to eat amazing potatoes, you don't need to go to Poland – find local, organic potatoes. When our family started subscribing to a CSA I couldn't believe the difference in some of the produce, especially potatoes.

  4. I not sure if was a "Polish" potato thing….it is more of a fresh picked straight from the garden thing. My husband and I grow potatoes and they are fabulous. They do taste much better than the ones you get at the store. So white, delicate, and creamy. I have bought many different varieties of potatoes at the store….but nothing really compares to the standard red and white we plant.

  5. I agree with fitforreallife. I don't think you're being dramatic at all. You are right. We are so out of touch with what food is and what it does (not to mention how it is made, and how advertising $ affects our views of it). Food is fuel for our bodies. Amazing how such a basic concept has been lost over the years.

    I also agree that I'm sad that the kids don't have the luxury of eating better. The only upside (which is actually bad, or perhaps ironic?) is they probably don't know what they're missing, so it is less obvious to them. Once you make the connection between what you eat and how it affects your body you can't go back.

  6. Almost over! and if you are like our area, no school today because of ice. You might have missed that though.

    I will miss the lunch posts, but really can't wait to see what you come up with for the new year!

  7. Wouldn't it be great if school lunches really looked like those in the video? And if the students were really excited about a burrito with lettuce and red peppers?

  8. Those potato wedges are a nice improvement over the tater tots we often saw last school year. Less processed, less fat, and nutritional benefits of including the potato skin. Probably less sodium, too.

  9. just watched the video….guess by healthy school lunches that will have lots of color they mean brown, brown, and red ketchup 🙂 Thank goodness for the two whole foods, yeah for potato wedges instead of tator tots and yeah for an apple instead of fruit cup!

    But that hamburger doesn't resemble a hamburger made at home

  10. Hi Mrs. Q, I though you might find one of these useful for your son.
    I need help bracelets
    It's an easy reminder of your sons special diet needs. My house is completely gluten free because my husband has celiac disease so I understand how hard it is for other people to understand not eating gluten.

  11. I have LOVED seeing the photos of your son's lunch, and think it would be great to see that continue. I'd also be interested in seeing what your New Homecooked Lunches look like in 2011!

  12. Mrs. Q, I wanted to congratulate you on your accomplishment of eating one year's worth of school lunches. I'll be out of town this weekend and won't be able to check your blog. As a child, I used to eat school lunch everyday. Even though I'm not as health oriented as you, I don't think I would be able to do the same now.

    I really appreciate your work and am looking forward to additional topics.

  13. Hello Mrs Q! As I was sitting at my desk this morning, sipping my coffee and eating my little oranges, I clicked over to to peruse the news, as I often do while having breakfast. And what do I see, but an article covering your blog! on the top right side of the page, major copy real estate! I have been reading your blog since the spring and I was so excited for you and just had to say GOOD JOB! How fantastic that your blog has helped highlight some much needed changes in child nutrition in schools. I don't have children, but I definitely care about what schools are doing to help our neediest students. As you've said before, for some of these children, this is the only meal they get all day. Something needs to be done to improve nutrition in our schools. I'm pretty sure that the President's daughters don't eat this kind of garbage, so why should other children simply because they have the misfortune of being poor?
    I know you took great risks in maintaining this blog, but now you know, it's definitely worth it. People are paying attention. they're reading your observations, they're listening, and they're taking the initiative to do something about it, and that my dear, is a triumph!

    you should be very proud. And I'm glad you survived, that food looked awful! I hope to continue to read more about your observations on this and other topics.

    Warmest regards,
    The ginger ninja

  14. Thanks for doing this. Since my daughter started kindergarten I've been amazed at the food they serve. Even more so by the fact that they only get 20 minutes to scarf down whatever they do manage to eat. Some of these kids don't get that much else for the day at least my little girl gets to bring something from home, except on pizza Friday's there is no getting her away from that.

  15. I just rad about your blog on msnbc. My husband was one of those kids whose best or only meal of the day was the school breakfast and lunch. I cannot tell you how it impacted his attitudes toward food. It's sick how processed and gross the food we offer young children is, and it also is sad that for some kids this is the best they're going to get. Good for you for doing this. I hope it can be a catalyst for change.

  16. I just came upon your blog, and I must say your school lunches look sooo bad. The lunches we had at my school were awesome and actually looked fresh and tasted pretty good. Some times I go have lunch with my mom who works at my old elementary school just so I can sample my favorite school time lunches again. Its amazing how varied school districts can be with their food, and I live in northwest Indiana

  17. WOW! This is as funny as it is tragic. I saw the burrito you got in the school lunch and fell out of my chair. That looks HORRIBLE!!! These poor kids. This is hard to believe. Honestly, I'm laughing myself out of oxygen at what they called a PB&J. Are they serious?

  18. My daughter is only 2 right now, but looking at these pictures I cannot tell you how grossed out I am over all this processed food. I can understand it's cheap, but it's barely food! I hope with the new deal our president signed we can get some healhty food choices in schools before my daughter has to go… or else sack lunch for us!

  19. Where's the second grain in this lunch? Or does potato count as the second "grain"? In which case, shouldn't they be referred to as "starches" rather than "grains"? Perhaps calling them "grains" sounds healthier…

    Or is the potato the "vegetable"? Either way, too much starch…

  20. You should blog what you will eat regularly now! I am assuming it will be something nice and healthy.

    Being at work and on a new lifestyle change (with over 100+ pounds to lose due to childhood obesity nearly 10 years of my life now), I'm in need of healthy lunch ideas. Something that is not overpriced (money is horrible right now & can prove school systems eating healthy is possible) and good for you. I'd love to see that come out from your blog.

  21. I feel sorry for anyone who has to eat that pre-packed so called school lunch. I was fortunate many years ago to work in the lunchroom of a school in the tiny town of Weskan, KS. Luckily we were able to make almost everything from scratch, bread, buns, noodles, was all homemade every day and we also had fresh produce, fruit and locally grown meat. Even our pizza was homemade, not frozen premade crap. Same with our breakfasts, we used fresh eggs and meats. Our desserts were all also homemade, we bought very little that was premade. I understand how that would not be cost effective in a lareg school, but it is sad to see what so many of the kids are eating now days.

  22. You were such a brave soul to endure this (kind of reminds me of Supersize Me)…I feel sick just looking at the pictures…the quality of the food that they serve to kids is despicable…and what's worse, it's subsidized…the lowest grade meat, veggies cooked to death…lots of sugar andcarbs…
    For many children, their entire sustenance depends on meals at school – that's tragic.
    It's no wonder schools are failing.

  23. Hi I'm also an elementary teacher, and I was wondering if you just show the main entree for that day, or if that's all that's offered. Do you have a salad bar, or extra fruit and vegetable options?

  24. Here are some comments from my daughter who is in 3rd grade and buys lunch almost everyday:
    "The hamburger looks burned, not juicy like ours. My school doesn't have pb&j and it looks crazy! I don't like that they burn our grilled cheese. I would not want to go to your school. My favorite school lunches are pizza, pancakes, and beef megaslider. You could now change your blog to be about packing gluten-free lunches. I love it when my mom shares Udi's gluten-free bread with me"

  25. Thanks for making people and parents aware of what is going on in the school cafeteria. So much of today is focused on child obesity yet no one seems to be making a change or can figure out where the problem is. Hopefully this will open up more eyes…. Keep promoting health and nutrition!!

  26. I wish I had found your blog sooner! I just can't believe the pre-packaged foods. I have to hand it to the schools around they actually put forth some effort. I have noticed that they try to incorporate more whole wheat foods and other nutritious items – today they had Soft or Hard Shell Tacos OR Black Bean Burrito with Salsa, Lettuce, Tomato, Sour Cream Cheesy Mexican Brown Rice Vegetable of the Day Choice of Fruit Cup/Fresh Fruit. The major problem I see is that the portions are small, especially for a growing pre-teen, and they are also $2 a day – so my son takes his lunch.

  27. Dear Ms. Q- Here is an interesting link to an article in TIME magazine I thought you might enjoy discussing the way the French view school lunches, which is dramatically different from your experience:,8599,1967060,00.html

    Also, I think that you are great for creating a blog that will raise awareness about the importance of eating healthy foods in our country, especially at school where our kids should be nourished so that they can reach their fullest learning potential. Keep up the great work!

  28. Do you think if they made it mandatory for teachers to each school lunches that we might see more change in them more quickly?

    I'm not saying that it should be done-or even that it's possible to enforce, just food for thought.

    It seems that the reason that the lunches are so "bad" is that kids don't know its bad or don't know how to speak up for themselves.

    just thinking out loud-out type…..

  29. My husband saw an article about your blog, so I had to look it up. I love food blogs, though I mostly read vegetarian, vegan or raw foodies. I am completely intrigued by your project and have read a few entries. I don't know how you did it! Do you think your taste buds have dulled? Do you think you'll have cravings for sugar/fats when you stop? Will you do green juices to detox or any kind of detox? You said you'll do a "plain" diet, but really I think the school lunch stuff is "plain" and what you make for your son–REAL food–is tasty, robust food. I'll continue reading and following your story in the news now that you're "out." BTW, I teach in a HS and it's amazing what these kids live on.

  30. As a high school senoir and been to six different schools from different states/counties and country, I've seen how lunches are served. Each school I've been to has a different style, yet similar. They all have some good and bad points. The school i'm at now tried to make things healther (law made them do it) yet the foods seems to me tastes worse than the year before. The school has two lines: one full lunch and one line that you can have pizza(looks and tastes like cardboard) or a really spicy chicken sandwich with a side(junk food). If you think the elementry schools lunch is bad try high schools!
    Seniors at my school can leave for lunch 5 minutes early. And almost every day over half of the seniors has packed a lunch. I only pack a lunch if there is any left overs from the night before. I'm willing to bet if there was a salad bar in the cafeteria, that would be the most popular thing!
    One thing that I hate about my school is that we have a culinary department that actually makes the food for the staff on a certain day each week. Yet they cant sell the food to the student cause it's "competition". The teachers in that department try to go organic and healthy, so I have to give them credit for that.
    I mentioned earlier that I went to a school in a different country. The school was in one of Japan's islands. The lunches from there were great for being frozen and shipped from the US. The only problem that I can remember is that sometimes if you where unlucky you'd get a milk with a slimy blob. The texture in my mouth always made me lose my appetite. Which is funny, now that I'm thinking about it, after the first couple of times getting it I would give my milk away.
    I'm really happy that you did this because it deserves to be known how bad school lunches can be. May your lunches in the future be good! 🙂

  31. I think you should continue your blog by revamping all of the previously consumed meals, turning them into what they should be. For instance, what could you do with lunch day number 160? Change it into something good. Then show us your healthy lunch for that day. A comparison of sorts, of what you and the children had to eat and the new healthy lunch. Do you know whats in those ketchup packets? I dont. Maybe you could tell us, then give us some better choices. Because I am guessing its not just tomatoes and spices.

  32. Just saw this on MSN today. Your blog is an example of modern social change at its best. The SAD (Standard American Diet) has many real risks, but most folks somehow remain in the dark about exactly WHY it is so bad and what exactly they could be eating instead. Most folks just think it tastes good and they are used to eating it. The issue of school lunches desperately needs the spotlight you are shining on it, especially on the children who are forced to eat it. Have you considered a plant-based diet using as much organic produce as possible for yourself and your family? Factory farmed animal products are the culprits for many of the offenses you mention. My son also stopped getting ill once we switched to a plant-based, organic diet last year. (He is almost 3 now, and was MUCH less sick this year than last year.). Anyway, great job and good luck to you. If you are interested in plant-based diet information, there are many excellent resources out there on the web. My new blog is if you want to try a few vegan recipes! Thanks again, Dawn.

  33. Hi, this is the first time I've read your blog (it was on MSN's home-page), and I'm a tiny bit jealous. Your school's lunches look pretty appetizing compared to mine.

    I'm a small town Virginia middle school student who suffers through school lunch every day. They don't even cook the french fries – seriously! – they are always raw…one kid even found a hair in his mashed potatoes!

    Just thought you should know! 🙂

  34. I'm late to the game here, but I would just like to say that I'm fascinated by what you've done (and are still doing) here. I recognize the standard pizza, corn and icee pairings, but when I was eating school lunches, there was no prepackaging, and I have to say – they didn't offer a lot, but I was at least lucky enough that my school district occasionally offered more than one vegetable… this is probably the only reason why I was able to make it through high school as a vegetarian. The lunch staff was incredibly helpful and sometimes offered me second helpings of side items, but still, the fact remains that there were a lot of lettuce, tomato, pickle and mustard burgers and mashed potatoes with peas and, well, Jell-O isn't vegetarian, so… yes, pretty much that.

    I don't know who the bodies overseeing school meal nutrition think they're fooling – but more appallingly than that, they're getting away with it anyhow, and that totally negates the point. It also inspires me to incredulity. I know a lot of people who have never read any nutrition facts labels to date, but personally, I know what constitutes a serving of vegetables, a serving of protein. You've made the point that many kids taking a lunch at school are facing their most nutritionally significant meal of the day. On the same note, I am pretty sad to think of the many kids who also eat school breakfasts – sausage dogs wrapped in a pancake with milk, toast dredged through margarine with translucent slabs of high fructose corn syrup laden "jellies" dolloped on top, bacon and eggs, artifically flavored blueberry muffins.

    I shudder to think that the US mainstream is so entrenched in fast food culture that these kinds of offerings are even, well, offered. Part of me truly believes that school nutrition would have been revamped long before now if so many adults in our nation weren't far behind the learning curve when it comes to whole, healthy eating.

    Thank you so much for raising awareness this way. I appreciate all the risks you took and all the half frozen fruit cups you stomached just to get people to look at the crap that's being served up to our children.

  35. I just started reading this blog. I think it was a good idea for you do choose to eat these lunches and bring attention to what kids are being fed at school. It's really sad since there is obviously a lot of kids that already have health problems and some of them cannot afford special lunches so they have no choice but to eat what is served.

    Does your school at least have a salad bar? I remember when I was in elementary school, we had a salad bar for a healthy option. I think you had to pay extra for it though….of course!

  36. i really enjoy all of your blog entries,i am a 9th grade highschool students and i am deeply sorry that you had to eat what i still have to, the lunches have an overall 45% rating in my book, most of the kids don't eat the breads given, and many do not attempt to eat the wicked smelling greens,i appreciate the effort that you have put foward tasing every thing and i feel like this blog can really help the children of america live a healthier lifestyle as well as learning to eat as an adult.

    unfortunatley in newyork we don't get these pre packed lunches you do and have not as much variety,pretty much pizza or a raw "burger" every day .lots of kids don't eat the lunch and wait till after school to get real pizza,WITH MORE CALORIES MIGHT I ADD, and mc'donalds*

  37. I agree that most school lunches disgusting, but I have have to brag on one school system in Monroe County,Tennessee. They have a chef at one of their schools. He has introduced many new entrees to the students. The nutrition director for the school system has him rotating between 12 schools to help the other cooks introduce these meals into their meal plan. The school system has received several grants to help put salad bars into the schools from elementary to high school. With the salad bars they are introducing fruits and vegetables to the students. Many of these students have never eaten the variety of different fruits and vegetables available because it is cheaper for these low income families to buy MacDonald's burgers and fries. Approximately 80% of the students are on free or reduced lunch.

  38. I taught middle school for 13 years. The SMELL from cafeterias made me nauseous. I came to believe that we (teachers/administration) were not just stupid but actually cruel to demand that children behave/learn/sit still after eating the crap that we fed them day after day. Once when I complained to a principal about the soda/snack machines, his reponse was that the revenue subsidized paychecks for the cafeteria workers. Couldn't we put in water or organic snacks instead? Ironically, the best meals I saw were years ago in a tiny public school in a very poor part of North Carolina; the cooks were real Southerners and seasoned the food beautifully and cooked fresh collards, etc.; much more of the food was local both physically and culturally. It felt like REAL food. With all the focus on testing, it's mind-boggling how little attention is paid to the basics — starting school later so kids can get enough sleep, letting them get out and play enough, feeding them so they can grow and think.
    LOVE your blog. THANK YOU.

  39. ….to the poster that asked if teachers were forced to eat the lunches would it change.

    I'm guessing not, because the teachers don't have any control over it either. Maybe if the administrators/principals/superintendents etc had to eat it they wouldn't stand for it. Especially in big school districts, teachers don't always get listened to, the administrators make the decisions and teachers just have to live with it like the students do.

  40. I found you through the msn TODAY Health article. I will read through more, but I must say from what I have read so far (two days worth), you are a trooper! I couldn't do it, and I don't even eat all that healthy myself; however I do eat better than that! I can't believe I ever ate that junk as a kid. Yuck!

    I am glad this topic is getting the attention it so deserves, and that you are another voice for change. Blessings to you. Have a Merry Christmas!

  41. I see someone else (at least one, I stopped reading) already said it: Any fresh, local potato is going to taste amazing, and much better than typical grocery store fare. it's the freshness, and the variety, that makes it good. Find yourself a CSA! I was eating very healthy already when I found my first CSA, but I was amazed at how much more I learned about food by being a part of the CSA. Like, lettuce actually tastes really good! I've always liked salad, but lettuce from the store doesn't have much of a taste. From the CSA (fresh from the farm), lettuce by itself, without any other veggies or dressing, tastes great! And I learned how much fun raw radishes of different varieties are on a salad. And that green garlic is really good, too. Being "forced" to try different vegetables each week was kind of like having to eat the school lunch, except much more fun and better for me. 🙂

  42. School lunches are so sad. I beg parents to go in and just see what they are feeding the children. Don’t get on the teachers because I have heard them complain and ask if there is something that can be done to improve the food and it falls on dead ears. Most schools its contracted so its all about making money and serving as cheap as possible. Remember, in many cases this is the best meal the children get out of the complete day. I’ve also seen children ask for more food because they are hungry and if no money…then no food. This is America and this is happening in schools. I have always said there should be a neutral person walking around the school to make sure they children get represented but you don’t see it happening. Very sad meals and no excuse other than MONEY.

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