A Quick Bite With Andi Curtis, plus What’s For Lunch?

A Quick Bite With Andi Curtis, plus What’s For Lunch?

Every morning before we make the breathless sprint to the bus stop, Esme pokes her head in the fridge and asks, “What’s in my lunch?” I’m still in the early days of my lunch-making career, which explains why I’m always watching and waiting to see her reaction to the lunch that I made after her bedtime the night before. Honestly, it can make or break my morning!

I’m not alone in my new-found lunch obsession. Jamie Oliver and his lunch ladies are just the tip of the iceberg of interest surrounding foods and kids. I love that Andrea Curtis’ new book, What’s For Lunch; How Schoolchildren Eat Around the World is meant for kids. Big, bright pictures show typical school lunches from around the world – from a simple plate of dahl in India to an enviable four-course meal in France – but also gives lots of context for what those meals mean, plus examples of kids getting involved in food issues. It’s a great book for a family to read together. Who knows, maybe it will inspire our kids to make their own lunches? A girl can dream, can’t she?

If you’re in Toronto, you can head down to Andi’s book launch, say hello and get her to sign your copy. It’s at my favourite book store, Type Books at 883 Queen Street West from 3 to 5 pm, Sunday September 30th. We caught up with Andi and asked her how lunches go down in her house. I was relieved to learn that her success rate on the lunches-eaten front mirrors my own. – C.M.

photo by Karri North

Q: You have two sons – did making their lunches start you thinking about lunch as a subject for a book?

A: I have two boys, 13 and 8, and making school lunch for them is a challenge every single morning. It’s not just trying to find something healthy, tasty and litterless that we can fit in a small bag and they can eat in 10 minutes or less. It’s also the thoroughly disheartening emptying out of the bag at the end of the day and finding the slightly browned apples and uneaten pasta. I started wondering if I’m having all this trouble, what are other people (with far fewer resources) doing around the world?

Q: Which country’s lunch surprised you most when you were researching What’s For Lunch?

A: I was probably most surprised by how unhealthy many school lunches are in the USA. I saw things like Frito pie—a casserole of corn chips, chili and piles and piles of greasy cheese—pepperoni pizza and a choice of strawberry or chocolate milk along with canned fruit (complete with marachino cherries). That’s changing now as Americans have begun to institute their new healthier school lunch guidelines, but it’s been pretty awful for a while.

photo by Yvonne Duivenvoorden

On the other hand, I was surprised in a good way by Brazil, where there is a huge amount of poverty and yet the government has made it a priority to ensure all children have a healthy and delicious meal at school with fresh fruit, rice and beans and veggies. They also require school meal providers to source 30 % of their food from small-scale local suppliers—helping support local economies as well as children’s health.

photo by Yvonne Duivenvoorden

Q: What do you want kids to learn about the world from What’s For Lunch?

A: I hope that children who read (or flip through!) the book will see both their differences and similarities to other kids around the world. I hope they’ll recognize the way that food connects us all. I also hope they’ll read about the kids who are taking charge of what they eat at their schools and in their homes—demanding healthy sustainably grown food, asking questions about how it’s produced and by whom—and see that they can also make a difference.

Q: How important is it for kids to have some control/input in their own meals?

A: I’ve been working with our school garden for a few years now and have seen first-hand how kids who weren’t willing to try a new vegetable (or any veg at all!) ended up eating kale pesto simply because they grew the kale themselves. And I love my own son’s enthusiasm about the knobbly little carrots and bitsy peppers we grow in our tiny urban patch. There’s no question when children have an opportunity to grow, cook, prepare or even just get involved in choosing their food, they take more chances and will eat more healthily. But it’s also more than that: when paired with talk about what all this means (to the planet and their own bodies, for instance) they start to see that even in this small way, their personal choices can have a big impact on their world.

Q: Why do you think there is such a strong interest now in what kids eat at school? Is it the Jamie Oliver effect or is there more to it?

A: There’s no question Jamie Oliver has had a huge impact on the school lunch world. But I think that the interest in school lunch is part of a more widespread engagement in food issues. You can’t turn on your computer or open a newspaper without reading about food safety scares, environmental degradation caused by factory farming, escalating food prices, small-scale farmers leaving the land because they can’t make a living, the obesity crisis. People are starting to understand that the industrial system we’ve established over the course of the last few generations is not sustainable. Interest in school lunch and talking about food with children is part of this. If we can teach our children about food and how it’s connected to all these things they care about (their environment, their health, their community and culture) they might actually have a fighting chance of truly changing this system for the better.

Q: Do you make your kids’ lunches or do they do it themselves? What’s in a typical lunch packed at your house? Does it get eaten?

A: In the morning rush, my husband and I usually share the making of school lunches, though we are constantly trying to figure out how to be organized enough to have our boys make their own. We’ve started having them do it once a week and plan to build up to every day. It’s an ongoing struggle of time and will.

Our best lunches tend to be leftovers: pasta with tomato sauce, BBQ potatoes and marinated tofu in a thermos. They always have a vegetable (carrots, cucumber), fruit (apples, mango, strawberries) and a little treat like a cookie or muffin. It does not always get eaten and the most frequent explanation is that they didn’t have enough time.

Q: Do you have any advice for someone (um, like me!) who is just starting out in their lunch-packing career?

A: This sounds obvious but makes a huge difference: invest in some great containers. I like the small metal tiffin boxes I’ve found in Little India and some enviro stores because they never break, they are somehow harder to lose than plastic and have separate spots so, for instance, sandwiches don’t get soggy because they’re up against cantaloupe. We also have colourful reusable silicone cupcake liners that we use to keep food from touching other food—key for certain kinds of picky eaters.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. Every time I think we’ve got it figured out, our kids decide they don’t like some food or other. I try not to take it personally.

Q: Do you cook with your kids?

A: My older son went through this great chef phase a few years ago, and he’d serve us things like crackers slathered with cream cheese and cucumber, a drizzle of honey over top. We were convinced he was the next Jamie Kennedy, but now he’s 13 and given the opportunity would eat nothing but bagels for every meal. I was thrilled when his middle school offered cooking classes as part of the curriculum last year. They were taught some simple recipes and even though he’s been cooking with me for years, it gave him a newfound confidence. Both boys enjoy baking (mostly because I believe it is a child’s godgiven right to lick the spoon, bowl and mixing implement when finished), and I often get them chopping veggies or grating cheese while I prepare dinner at the kitchen island.

Q: How hard or easy is it for parents to get more involved with the issues of food in schools? I just learned my 5 year old is being given chocolate milk for a snack at her Toronto public school. What the heck?

A: It took me a long time to figure out where I fit into my kids’ school as a parent—whether it’s about academic issues, food or volunteering my time. Nobody wants to be that guy when it comes to the teachers, other parents or administrators, marching in and wagging your finger about bake sales or insisting on whole-grain pizza dough on pizza day. But parents are key participants in the school system and we need to be both clear and respectful talking to schools about our expectations, hopes and concerns. Chocolate milk might be okay as a special treat, but serving it to 5 year olds every day doesn’t sound right at all. There was a huge debate about serving chocolate milk in schools in the US last year. Chef Ann Cooper, a key school meal activist otherwise known as the Renegade Lunch Lady, calls it “sugary soda in drag.” I think schools need to think carefully about the mixed messages they send children when they talk about healthy eating in class (the food groups, nutrients, etc.) and then urge them to sell cookie dough or chocolate bars to raise money or offer them processed food or sugary drinks as incentives or snacks.

Q: Your husband, Nick Saul, was until recently the Executive Director of The Stop Community Food Centre. So food and the politics around food are obviously a big deal in your home. Do your boys get involved in those conversations or do they get tired of all the food talk?

A: Food is a huge part of our lives. We talk about food and the politics around it all the time—and yes, our children get tired of it. But mostly, we try to keep it light—and focus on the pleasure of eating and cooking together. Still, I’m pretty sure our interest in food is one of the reasons our oldest son became vegetarian at 8 years old (5 years ago). We aren’t big meat eaters but do eat it occasionally (especially out of the house). Maybe becoming vegetarian was a way to stake his own ground in the food conversation. He’s completely committed to it, too—last summer he realized many marshmallows have animal-based gelatin in them and he’s not eaten a (non-vegan) mallow since.

Q: You and NIck are working on a book together about The Stop, is that right?

A: It’s called The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement and it’s coming out next spring from Random House.

Q: What’s your go-to, busy Wednesday night dinner?

A: My favourite kind of family meal is one in which everyone can chose what they like from a variety of simple options so there are no standoffs about the food and we can all enjoy eating together. Black bean burritos fit the bill nicely. If we’re organized we make the black bean dip (with lots of cilantro) on the weekend and warm it up, but it’s also easy and quick to make on a busy night. We’ll put out bowls with grated cheese (salty feta for the adults, mozza for the kids), salsa, red peppers, chopped up bits of whatever’s in the fridge, maybe corn, guacamole, cherry tomatoes, plus warm whole wheat tortillas. Everyone makes their own from the fixings on the table. We’ll have a salad on the side—with the ingredients depending on the season. With everyone passing and talking and making their own food, it actually feels a bit festive.

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  1. Laura
    September 27, 08:34 Reply

    Sounds like a great read!

  2. […] A couple of weeks back, I had the good fortune to be interviewed by Ceri Marsh, one of the smart women behind Sweet Potato Chronicles, a funny, useful and great-looking website devoted to the family meal. SPC offers recipes, product reviews, ideas for how to get your kids eating healthily and one of my favourite regular features: “What’s so great about…?” (sage, bay leaves, coffee, pumpkin, etc.). Ceri asked such good questions, I wanted to include a few of them here. For the complete interview, follow the link. […]

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