Vegetarian 101: Queens school changes menu

I believe in signs. When my daughter Caitlin was 4 years old, we came across “Veggie Tales,” the children’s cartoon featuring vegetable characters in stories with a Christian theme. I was looking for an alternative to the usual entertainment fare of Disney and PBS, and I found that the “Veggie Tales” stories were engaging and easy for Caitlin to follow. Plus, I enjoyed the cartoons myself and watched along with my daughter in some meaningful mommy-and-me bonding time.

Fast forward a year later when Caitlin turned 5 and was accepted to PS 244, the Active Learning Elementary School, also known as TALES, in Flushing. It’s an application school with a lottery process for enrollment. Caitlin was one out of more than 400 applicants for roughly 135 kindergarten spots. We beat incredible odds and are lucky to be in a school that looks out for the complete well-being of every student. Whatever the secret formula is, I have a happy, healthy, and motivated child who wants to go to school every day. Caitlin shares so much of what happens daily in class, centers, gym, recess, and the cafeteria; especially, the cafeteria.

On April 30, the school became the first city public school to serve a vegetarian menu for all meals. (Students can also bring their own lunch if they don’t want the vegetarian offerings.)

Previously, vegetarian choices were offered three days a week. Each month, I would look over the menu that came home on the back of the school calendar and go over with Caitlin what she would eat and try at lunch. She would circle items like roasted zucchini, orange-glazed carrots, broccoli trees, roasted tofu, brown rice, and spinach wraps. Then we would make a plan for her to try a few bites of something new such as black beans and cheddar quesadilla, falafels, curried chickpeas, or chili.

We would later record in her food journal her reactions. We did a star rating system with new items she liked the most getting three stars, items she wouldn’t mind trying again getting two stars, and items that didn’t work getting one star.

I need to preface that Caitlin was the worst eater. She is brutally honest when she likes or dislikes a new food, and would rather skip a meal than try something new. Every meal time was a battle. She could live on chicken nuggets, plain rice, and noodles without ever encountering a vegetable.

Caitlin had chronic constipation and low muscle tone. Since she’s been in school, she has learned that it isn’t healthy to starve herself, and finds another food choice she likes. She has her first and second choices in mind and turns to the cafeteria’s salad bar if she needs to supplement. I am totally in awe that the school has been able to change my picky eater to a smart eater who understands that she has the power to choose foods to help her mind and body grow.

Recently, the school invited families to a nutrition workshop and dinner night, so we could experience firsthand what our children are having in the cafeteria. My husband Victor, who is the biggest red-meat eater, didn’t think he would like the vegetarian meal, but was surprised that the food was tastier than he thought and actually quite filling. I was impressed by how flavorful the cooked vegetables were and learned a few cooking tips on what herbs to use and some new ways to prepare beans.

Since the news of the school turning vegetarian, most of the families have welcomed the change. In the widespread community, there have been some rumblings. There is the notion that schools are taking away our food rights and imposing their will. I can only speak for myself, but don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. If your child is going to eat something not made by your own two hands, I would prefer that it be something identifiable.

The other day, Caitlin and I were cleaning out her DVD collection and she came across one of her beloved “Veggie Tales” stories. As she focused on the cover, I asked her if she wanted to watch the cartoon. Instead, Caitlin said she was reading the name and said “veggie tales” sounded like her school. She told me that she now eats lots of vegetables at TALES and she can run faster, jump higher, and work smarter. Out of the mouth of babes — the ultimate sign.

Karen M. Lee is a freelance writer and educator who lives in Flushing with her husband and daughter. Lee is passionate about reading, has a whimsical sense of humor, and favors taking the road less traveled.