Early in 2012, “The Naked Chef” host and food activist Jamie Oliver influenced a historical win against fastfood giants like McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell when he was able to get them to discontinue their use of “pink slime” (ammonium hydroxide) in their burgers in the US.
By the end of the same year, McDonald’s admitted to record sagging global sales in almost 10 years, which is probably why it has announced that it will now add salad, fruit or vegetables as choices, in lieu of fries, to their value meals. Burger King has also introduced lower-calorie fries, in response to public clamor for healthier options.
Fast-food chains can no longer hide behind “it’s what the market wants” when the health-conscious market is becoming more mainstream. In 2010, in his show “Food Revolution,” Oliver failed to convince “America’s fattest city,” Huntington, West Virginia, to provide better options in its school cafeterias. But one to two years later, the town’s school menus have changed for the better.
I try to serve my family mostly healthy things. I say “mostly” and not “always” because I don’t want to be too hung up on “bad” food. Sweets are still my kryptonite, and, after all, Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster extols the virtues of fruit and calls cookies a “sometimes” food!
At home, we eat only whole-wheat bread and pasta, brown rice, fruits, veggies and pork-less, beef-less meals we make from scratch. We do not use processed meat or cheese. But when we are out in the mall on weekends or attending children’s parties, while we still try to health-up our choices (water instead of soda/juice, unsalted fries, sharing dessert), we won’t stress about eating out of the ordinary and just enjoy the occasional burger or pizza.
My son Jack started nursery this year and I was pleasantly surprised to see that his school handbook explicitly outlines what the kids are recommended to bring as snacks:
“We highly encourage children and teachers to acquire healthy eating habits while at school. Therefore, we discourage children to bring any kind of chips and sweets where sugar or sweetener is listed as the first, second or third ingredient. Please do not send candy, gum, chips, cookies, and highly sugared desserts and drinks to school. Some suggestions are fresh fruit; bread; muffins; and crackers and cheese, peanut butter, honey, jam or butter. For health reasons (contagious disease and dietary restrictions), children must eat only from their own snacks or lunches.”
The preschool handbook even has a Nutrition section where it elaborates: “Diet plays an important role in the child’s social, emotional, physical and intellectual well-being. Children should be encouraged to eat a healthy breakfast or lunch before coming to school. We also ask that parents pack snack or lunch in reusable containers and cloth napkins to reduce the amount of waste generated. Microwaves and refrigerators are available for the children to use with assistance from a teacher. We encourage the children to drink water during the school day. Please send a labeled water bottle with your child each day.”
I appreciated this attention to detail, and wondered if other schools have concentrated on it, too, or if Jamie Oliver would need to pay our lunchrooms a visit as well.
‘Baon’ rules in school
Memories of our school canteen include soda, Cow Label, Chickadees and Cheezels, the Icee/slushy machine, chocolate eggs and yema. I didn’t have an allowance till I was much older, so I brought everything from home.
Two decades later, while shopping for a preschool, I noticed that when Jack did a trial session at a popular gym-type of preschool, the place served candy and other junk food during mealtime. Have times really changed?
Forty-something mom Pinky prepares the baon of her son Enrico, 7, every day.
“Yes, the school has stipulated rules. Healthy snacks only,” she said. “Their canteen does not sell any soft drinks, having pulled out all soda vendo machines a couple of years ago.
“Enrico’s school also offers healthy options in their canteen. We have okayed his request for a P50 baon every day for lunch because he prefers hot food. Kasi the baon does not look appetizing and does not taste as good anymore, malamig na kasi. Nag se-sebo. If only his baon was hot, he will not ask for money to buy food (there is no microwave in their canteen to reheat food). A simple meal like hot siomai with rice is exactly P50. Happy na siya dun and they buy as a group. Teacher is also with them.”
Christine, 32, also shared that the school of her daughter Yvonne, 6, prohibits junk food. “Grade 1 students are not allowed to go out of the classroom for recess and lunch. They only eat their baon.”
Homemaker and former preschool teacher Reina, 34, has two kids: Enrique, 4, and Natalia, 3, who go to different schools.
“Both schools have always encouraged us to pack healthy snacks for the kids, and to say no to candies, soda and chips,” she said. “My kids are both in preschool so they still don’t make visits to the cafeteria for their snack time.”
Since Jack only has about 10-15 minutes for recess and is still mastering how to eat independently, I usually pack for him one or two of the following: bite-sized pieces of fresh fruit, natural cheese, unsalted nuts, hard-boiled egg or a small muffin, and a Yakult.
Christine also takes into consideration the school’s time constraints for recess.
“That’s why sometimes I give Yvonne bread instead of rice for her baon. I just make sure she gets to eat rice when she comes home.”
Reina added, “I try to make the kids’ baon fun and exciting by making it bento style. They usually bring two containers: one with their protein, rice/bread and veggies (which they hardly touch!), and another with two kinds of fruit and a treat. The treat is usually one or two marshmallows, a cookie or jelly. I love going to Japanese stores to purchase these little rice shapers and cutters for cutting up nori sheets, to make faces to stick on everything!
“I also requested some accessories from my brother in Singapore since it’s hard to find bento supplies here. One tool I love is the food color markers (aka food pens!) because I get to draw pics like Enrique’s favorite Lego chima character on his hardboiled egg or Natalia’s princess or minion on a banana. I also like writing notes like ‘I love you’ on their cookies, just to remind them all the time that their daddy and I constantly love and care about them.”
Pinky plans Enrico’s meals weekly. “Kasabay kasi ng grocery shopping,” she explained. “We plan the baon together. I give him options for drinks (flavors of Sunkist Tetra Pak juice), and snacks (Oreo cookies? Ritz toasted chips? Egg sandwich? Tuna sandwich?).
“When Yvonne started school, I used to have a set menu for the week that I would plan myself” shared Christine. “But many times she would come home with it unfinished, either because she doesn’t like the food or she does not have time to finish it. So I’ve learned to ask her what she likes to eat for school the next day, and that’s what I give her. If she doesn’t know, I give my suggestions.”
As for Reina, “I don’t really plan weekly although I find that when I do, it makes it so much easier in the mornings when I scavenge the ref and freezer.”
Labor of love
As time-consuming as it can sometimes be, preparing meals for our little ones is a worthy endeavor. Caring for their health and well-being is crucial, and consistently emphasizing good habits while they are young will hopefully train their taste buds for the good, despite future marketing ploys or peer pressure. If anything, we get to treasure little anecdotes of these fleeting moments.
“Enrico once asked me, ‘If I get older, will my baon money increase?’ said Pinky, laughing. “Another time, he asked, ‘Mama, can you get a stall in the canteen na lang so that I can eat spaghetti every day?”
Noted Christine, meanwhile, “It is really hard to feed Yvonne because she is a picky eater. One day, I gave her her favorite food: corn kernels with Cheez Whiz. When I picked her up from school, I asked if she finished her baon. She happily exclaimed, ‘Yes, I loved it! I love corn and cheese. You’re the best mom ever.’ That’s when I knew: For me to get what I want, which is for her to finish her food, I have to listen to what she wants so we’re both happy.”
“I usually ask them if they enjoyed their baon when I pick them up from school,” Reina said. “And I get excited responses about how they ate up their minion or chima egg—just little signs that they appreciated the effort I put into making their baon.”
With the continuing trend towards healthier living, it wouldn’t be surprising if fun and healthy baon-making for kids can turn into an actual career (if it isn’t already).