The Lunch Lady

by Cindy Lazarenko


Since taking over the school lunch program last year at Highlands Junior High (now managed by Teresa Bradley but I still help out when needed), I’ve heard many comments from teachers, students and parents at the school suggesting that the students are happier, more focused with an increase in productivity. They are polite and appreciative:

“The Highlands Food Program helps me out a lot. It gives me the nutrition I need for the hard working day ahead.”

“Staff at the school have noticed increased attentiveness from students who have eaten a balanced breakfast and lunch. Students with a full stomach are also prepared to be physically active in gym classes and extra-curricular athletics.”

This kind of enthusiasm for a midday break, a nourishing lunch and a chance to visit and share with your peers is something worth looking forward to each day for kids and adults alike. A well-balanced, nourishing lunch can help us stay focused and energetic for the rest of the day.

For me, my biggest challenge is keeping up with my two daughters and I often struggle with the midday slump. I had children later in life, and now I am hyper-aware of how many times a day I tell them I’m tired, especially around school pick-up time. I don’t want them to remember their childhood with me as a tired mom. I aspire to be a role model. Active. Enjoying life. Doing spontaneous things. Trying different things. Not having a quick little power nap (which inevitably turns into a sleep coma and followed by a lack of enthusiasm for anything but Netflix). OK, I’m exaggerating. Or am I? Hmmm.
For many years I have paid close attention to my eating habits and food choices, sometimes too close. I find it can take away from the simple joy of eating when your mind is filled with thoughts of guilt and second guessing your choices. The decisions involved in a healthier diet are, for most, overwhelming.

For example, I am concerned when I go to a farmers market and a fruit vendor is offering up plastic packets of blueberries from Mexico. I offered a delicious quinoa salad at my restaurant only to discover I had been contributing to short-term food security issues in Bolivia. I stand in the produce section of my neighbourhood grocery store on a Sunday night wondering whether I should purchase B.C. apples that are not organic or the bag of organic Pink Lady apples from who knows where.

Often there are no cut and dried answers, no simple solutions to help us decide on the right choices. The best we can do is shop local when possible, eat lots of fruits and vegetables and stay away from overly processed foods.

What I learned from working at the school is good food can come from working with what you have, or simply just getting back to the basics.

When preparing lunches at the school, I often used a variety of spices, not necessarily hot and spicy, just flavourful and interesting. A favourite was chicken and chickpea curry (with loads of Indian spices—cumin, coriander, garam masala, chilies and turmeric), topped with yogurt and apple chutney. A simple tomato soup made from any type of tomato product I had on hand, spiced with smoked paprika and served with cheesy whole-wheat pita crisps. The students love pasta salads. Sometimes we would have to use the pasta from boxes of Kraft dinner, but when I added cherry tomatoes, cheddar, crumbled cauliflower and diced red peppers, then tossed with a yogurt and mayonnaise-based dressing seasoned with Italian spices, the result was a satisfying, nourishing lunch that got them through the rest of the day.

We were given a case of Japanese noodles once. On their own, not ideal, but ever so lightly sprinkled into one of those Japanese cabbage noodle salads recipes from the ’70s, loaded with shredded cabbage and carrots, celery, peppers, minced mushrooms, sunflower seeds and sesame dressing? Delicious. Add sliced chicken or turkey breast or even cubes of tofu for a well-balanced meal that’s sure to prevent the mid-day slump.

Fruit donations at the school come from several different sources. The students love apples and oranges, bananas and occasionally kiwis and grapes. Grapefruit? Not so much. But if you turn those grapefruits into a salad dressing, sweetened with honey, they just might eat it.


Salad in a Jar with Grapefruit Salad Dressing

½ c roughly chopped onion, shallots or scallions
2 c fresh grapefruit juice (about 3 grapefruits)
2 T chopped cilantro
2 t honey
¼ t freshly ground pepper
¼ c extra virgin olive oil
salt to taste

Place the onion, grapefruit juice, cilantro, honey and pepper in a blender; process until smooth. With blender on, slowly add oil; process until smooth. Season with salt, to taste.

Makes approximately 2½ cups.

Salad Suggestion:
Start with a layer of your favourite cooked grain (millet, brown rice, barley, farro). Drizzle a good amount of salad dressing (you want to really saturate the grains as this will essentially be what coats the rest of the salad). Layer with chopped romaine lettuce, a few handfuls of baby spinach, cherry tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, chopped celery. Garnish with chunks of creamy goat cheese, sprouts or micro greens. Sprinkle with toasted pumpkin seeds, sliced almonds, sunflower seeds or a mixture of all.

Cindy Lazarenko is the chef/owner of OnOurTable, a volunteer at Highlands Junior High, and helps her brother at Culina Catering.