Youngsters were cheering and laughing Monday at Schoharie Elementary School as the aroma of cooked chicken wafted through the air of the tiny gymnasium.
“Stinky garlic breath” and “chocolate cookies” drew roars from the students eager to take part in the assembly led by Chef Gail Sokol, who described how fun it can be to cook healthy food.
Monday’s program, held in two sessions for a total of 426 students and staff, is the product of more than four months’ work aimed at boosting healthy food intake in preparation for new requirements to hit school cafeterias in the fall, said Brian Sherman, superintendent of the Schoharie Central School District.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled new school meal standards early this year requiring school meal programs to offer fruits and vegetables daily, boost offerings of foods rich in whole grain and limiting portion sizes, among other changes, according to the USDA website.
Through the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010,” hot dogs will give way to whole wheat spaghetti and meat sauce with a whole wheat roll.
Choices like pizza sticks and breaded beef patties will be replaced with chef salads with chicken, oven-baked fish nuggets and other items throughout the country’s schools, according to the USDA.
Sokol said it’s easier to start good eating habits with younger children — older kids and adults get used to eating certain kinds of foods and it’s harder to change their diet.
“You have to do it when they’re young,” said Sokol, who developed the “Thinking Outside the Lunchbox” program as part of her efforts to help children and families eat and live healthier.
Dietitian Josie Ennist, director of school meals at the school district, said older students noticed the menu changes already implemented — the addition of more greens, which they were calling “grass clippings.”
Others weren’t accustomed to finding baby spinach in their salads, she said.
“Some kids still pick it out,” Ennist said.
Though she’s a culinary artist, Sokol also studied chemistry and she’s able to point to specific reasons why putting the spice paprika in a recipe is a healthy addition — it contains phytochemicals and antioxidants that help the body fight disease.
Kids in kindergarten through third grade were excited just to go to a forum, and they were thrilled to raise their hands and offer input on the process as Sokol took them through the steps toward making a new meal she developed just for the Schoharie school.
The youngsters joined in a unanimous “eeew” when Sokol said she had raw chicken in a plastic bag. But they cheered when asked if they liked chicken fingers.
Now, they all know the steps involved in making “Blenheim Covered Bridge Crispy Chicken Fingers,” a dish Sokol developed that requires marinating the raw chicken in fat-free plain yogurt and skim milk.
The yogurt, Sokol explained, has enzymes that work to break down the proteins in the meat — so it tenderizes the chicken while it marinates.
Paprika and garlic powder, whole wheat breadcrumbs and an oven instead of a deep fryer all make for a more-healthy meal than fast-food versions of chicken nuggets that people are more used to, and the children appeared unanimous in their support for the new meal.
“Healthy and delicious can go together,” Sokol said.
The district has been working with Sokol for several months to develop improvements for the lunch program. The work included a survey of parents and students aimed at learning about favorite foods and eating habits.
More information about the program can be found on the Schoharie Central School District website at http://www.schoharie.k12.ny.us/ and www.chefgailsokol.com.