Sunday, March 28, 2010


When I was in primary (elementary) school I had school dinner (lunch) every day. My mum counted on us having a good meal, to the point where our evening meal at home until I was at secondary school (6th grade) was a sandwich and a bag of crisps. I think we probably did have pretty good lunches, though I remember not liking the liver very much. I actually liked the flavour and the texture, but I didn't like the 'rubber bands' you had to cut out of it. I remember getting told off by the dinner ladies for 'playing' with our food when we stirred the dollop of jam into the semolina to make the semolina pink. I liked semolina, but we never had it at home. We sometimes had pink custard too, which I'd forgotten about completely until another blogger mentioned it recently.

School lunches definitely weren't so good once we got to secondary school. I remember being served battered and deep-fried spam fritters and loving them. I actually added more salt! One day I was at the very end of the line and they had literally run out of food. My lunch that day was white rice and chips. That was the day I discovered that plain white rice could be made more interesting with the addition of malt vinegar. By the time I was in the 6th form I was too lazy to walk to the other side of the school to get my lunch so I stopped having school lunches. In fact I think I stopped eating much of anything for lunch because I was too lazy to make a lunch to bring to school with me. I survived on coffee and Lipton's Cup-a-Soup because we had a water heater in the 6th form common room and everyone had their own jar of instant coffee and CoffeeMate. I had coffee when I arrived at school, one at mid-morning break, one at lunch after my Cup-a-Soup, and another if I had a study hall in the afternoon. A cup of tea when I got home from school, and a coffee after dinner, and it's a miracle I ever slept!

After I moved on to university, they changed to a cafeteria system at school so that instead of paying a set price for a (supposedly) balanced meal, kids could choose what they wanted. I have no doubt chips outsold everything else.

I was pleased when I heard of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's campaign to improve school meals in the UK, though I don't know how successful it was. Certainly, there were stories in the press of parents circumventing his plan for no junk food by delivering fish'n'chips to their poor children who couldn't stomach the thought of a healthy meal.

Jamie has now made a new series for American TV about food – how families eat, what kids get at school and why, like the UK, the diet of processed food and snacks is causing so many health and obesity problems. I choose to send my kids to school with a lunch from home, as I have not been impressed with the lunch menus. The series was filmed in Huntington, West Virginia and from what I've seen, the school lunches there seem very similar to school lunches here, several states away. I've watched the first two hours of the series and I have to say some of it seems to be a setup. One of the 'lunch ladies' (who seems confused by that title) seems convinced that nothing he does will succeed. Given that the entire series has probably been filmed already, I am guessing that she eventually will see the light and become one of his greatest supporters.

The first meal Jamie served was in competition with the 'regular' school meal, and of course most of the kids chose the meal they were familiar with. The next meal, all the kids were served Jamie's menu. The administrators complained that Jamie had not provided nutritional analyses of the meals, and had not provided two starches 'as required'. Why was he not told in advance his meals had to meet certain nutritional requirements? Well, it does make for more dramatic television . . .

He was 'allowed' to serve a third meal, which initially was no more successful than the first two. Part of the problem was that in order to eat his food, the kids needed a knife and fork. Why is that a problem you ask? American public schools (at least none that I've been in) do not provide knives for their students to use. Well, I can see their point - they use plastic cutlery, and a plastic knife is usually pretty useless. I did lunch duty in one school for two years, and there was one meal (some kind of meat patty served with gravy) that the kids really needed a knife for. Most kids would pick the patty up with the fork and then nibble around the patty, never taking it off the fork. Practical, but hardly good table manners. There were two of us on lunch duty and every time this meal was served, we would go into the kitchen and ask for real knives, and then would go around the room asking the kids if they wanted us to cut their lunch up for them.

Eventually, we managed to persuade the woman running the kitchen that for that one meal in the menu cycle the kids could be trusted with plastic knives. Yes, I said trusted. Her reasoning for not providing knives was the kids couldn't be trusted. Excuse me? Like they couldn't poke each other's eyes out equally effectively (if not more so) with a plastic fork? Actually, I think she was following policy set by higher ups, as she's really a very reasonable lady. Once the kids were given the plastic knives, I realized we had another problem. Most of the kids (and I kid you not) DID NOT KNOW HOW TO USE THEM! Now instead of going round the room cutting the kids' meals up for them, I had to go around the room teaching them how to use their knife and fork effectively.

Therefore, I was well aware before Jamie's new show that American kids as old as 10 years old may not actually know how to use a knife and fork. In the UK, on the other hand, I remember my mother saying that when she taught the reception class the parents were told that when their child started school at age 4 or 5 they needed to be able to use a knife and fork by themselves because the staff did not have time to help them. So I also understand why Jamie expected the kids in the US to be able to use a knife and fork, and his reaction when he found they couldn't. What completely threw me for a loop was the oppositional lunch lady's reaction when he said that in the UK kids as young as 4 and 5 are expected to be able to (and can) use a knife and fork. She said, in all seriousness, "Can you document that?" She honestly did not expect kids to be able to use a knife and fork!

Jamie asked if some of the kids could be made to stay at the lunch tables for a little longer and he started going around showing the kids how to use a knife and fork. The principal then started doing the same thing. Lo and behold, once the kids were EXPECTED to eat, and TAUGHT how to use a knife and fork so that they could eat the food, many more of them ate up and did in fact enjoy the food.

If we don’t expect our kids to be able to use a knife and fork, then they will never learn. If we don’t set expectations for our kids, they will have nothing to rise to. And quite frankly, I don’t think learning to use a knife and fork is a very high expectation, even for a kindergartner! Or is the US-UK cultural divide greater than I thought?

(Oh, and go read Expat Mum's post on this topic if you haven't already!)


NFAH said...

The cutlery issue has more to do with the fork-in-the-right-hand style of eating in the US; I still struggle after moving to the UK when I'm served things that I can't seem to get to my mouth when being 'polite' by local standards with the fork in my left hand. Couscous is my favorite example. But we're just taught a different style of eating that uses the side of the fork to cut such that a knife is needed only for buttering bread and maybe if a special steak knife is present.

Anonymous said...

I get the impression that school meals have improved greatly in the UK - certainly at primary level where they have a set menu. At secondary school they can choose and there is always a "junky" kind of choice.

The school meals we experienced in the US (and I mean "we" as they had a weekly "invite your parent" lunch) were quite dreadful - everything greasy and turned into nuggets and finger food. It was like the worst sort of fast food restaurant.

I hope we get to see Jamie's new programme in the UK - sounds interesting.

Good post :o)

LHA said...

I was just saying the other day to a fellow expat blogger that I was strictly taught to use my cutlery properly at home (and at school) and my parents still today expect very particular table manners from us. It's a simple skill to learn with repetition and a good example.

I can not stand the way American children in particular (though not only them) look at a knife as if they've never seen one before and use their hands as much as possible. It's no wonder there are weight problems when all food is soft enough to only need a fork or spoon and, therefore, doesn't have to be chewed - just guzzled down!

Expat mum said...

I must say though, that even though we weren't served fast food junk at school, some of the meals were bloody awful. The cabbage was so boiled it was white, and the mashed potato was powdery. Yuck - it makes me shudder even now. I do hope British school meals have improved a little since then.

And in the 6th form common room most of us had our little cup-a-soup for lunch too!

Almost American said...

NFAH - yes, there is definitely a different style in terms of using cutlery (silverware)but I still think kids should at least learn how to use a knife and fork, and it clearly isn't happening in many American homes!

CambridgeLady - I almost had the feeling watching Food Revolution that it was made for British TV - it was reinforcing many stereotypes of Americans, and certainly wasn't flattering!

Limey - that was a good point about the style of eating being related to the obesity problems!

Expat Mum - I agree - I think the lunches at school in the UK were pretty bad - even in my small village primary school I don't think the meals were as healthy as they could have been. Hey, back then, my mother's cooking was nowhere near as healthy as it is now!

Nomad said...

I think there is a real tendency today to leave every kind of common everyday ability- like how to use cutlery - to the schools. The schools in turn leave it to the parents. In the end, the children never learn at all. Forget about all the social courtesies. Those went out a long time ago.
I mean, what can be more basic than learning how to use a fork and knife? Personal hygiene maybe?

Of course, it is possible to carry this how to eat thing a bit too far. All this business with "painting" the back of your fork with mashed peas or potatoes seems a bit too much as far as I am concerned. That must make me a barbarian but it was very competitive in my home and if I had fiddled around with all that fancy show-off stuff, I would have starved to death.

Jane said...

I cannot believe what passes for food in this country. My biggest shock moving from Norway to the US was the quality of the much processed, nothing fresh.
My kids get a packed lunch from home and have done all their lives. Frankly I just don't trust my kids nutrition to anyone else. "You are what you eat" as far as I'm concerned.

If I Could Escape . . . said...

What a good post!!

I remember in my primary school the lunches were fantastic. Proper homemade custard and mash and gravy -- not at all that stereotypical school lunch. The school still actually has the best reputation in town for school lunches. When I got to middle school, it was a different story -- all chips, spam fritters, spaghetti o's and what we lovingly referred to as shit bombs (round choclate truffles). They added a salad and jacket potato section in my final year there which I definitely preferred. By the time I got to grammar school, I was going in to the town for my dinner so didn't stay unless it was raining.

Here in Florida, the meals are awful at the primary level -- my middle son takes a packed lunch every day but the oldest can't be bothered with it so gets whatever is on offer. He usually picks a PB&J or chicken sandwich. Hoping whatever Jamie O does in WV will trickle down here!!

Richard said...

"American kids as old as 10 years old may not actually know how to use a knife and fork"

Not much flabbergasts me; but I'm flabbergasted by this! :o

Daffodilly said...

I saw the show & felt that it was a set up too. It's true though about the school meals here they are terrible. At Middle school they can buy candy,soda all those crappy sweet drinks etc for a silly price. I have blocked my kids buying the junk which of course they hate me for & pack a lunch most days. Its all this drinking soda, gatorade etc that drives me mad....hello try water or fresh juices!!!! Don't get me started about using knives & may as well give them a trough & a shovel!

geekymummy said...

Haven't seen the show so thanks for the review. I do love Jamies recipes.
How funny about the knife and fork, my oldest is just in preschool but she can use a knife.

I recall a roomate laughing at me for cutting up my pizza with a knife and fork, British style! I admit I have fallen into bad American hand held pizza eating habits since!

Unknown said...

I'm American, and I started first grade in 1961. We certainly had knives, forks, and spoons available as cutlery. So this "no knives" rule must be something new (relatively). Even so, I am SHOCKED to hear what you say. I was taught proper table manners at home, and certainly knew how to cut food properly with a knife and fork by the age of six. We were even taught when cutting meat how to never cut the tines on the back of the fork (which is easy for children to do).

We used to have some foods at school which required cutting, such as "Chicken Fried Steak," although not every food every day would have required cutting. In the cafeteria line was a separate tub each of table knives (not steak knives), forks, and spoons. You took whatever you wanted to use. I agree with one person who mentioned above that FORKS would be FAR more dangerous if you wanted to stab someone than a table knife would be.

What amazes me the most about this post is wondering if this is true, that parents are no longer teaching their children to eat with knives and forks. If they are not, this says to me that they are not doing so because they are NOT COOKING THE KINDS OF FOODS WE GREW UP WITH. They must be going to the deli and picking something up, or eating processed, bite-size stuff.

As one commenter mentioned, it IS true that we are taught to cut softer foods (such as meat loaf) with the side of a fork if we wish.

One other manner we were taught was to use a either a piece of bread or the side of the table knife as a "pusher" onto the fork (when necessary, such as for peas), and never to use one's thumb, of course! So this was a second use for the knife, and yes, it was taught before six years old.

What I think, my conclusion, is that many families are so busy with both parents working that no one is doing proper cooking at home any more, thus making knives unnecessary for most meals, and thus parents not often eating meals where the use of a knife would need to be taught. It's absolutely shocking!

Expat Abroad in Morocco

Almost American said...

Nomad - I don't think the parents are assuming the schools will teach use of knives and forks - I think they've never really figured out that perhaps the kids might need to know how at some point in their lives.

Jane and IICE - our schools around here have menus that superficially look OK - there's fruit and veg in every lunch. The question is whether the kids eat it - or whether it's as good as the menu sounds! I send my kids with lunch from home all but one day a school year. I cringe, but I let them have school lunch on Field Day - hot dogs, crisps, and ice cream :-(

Richard - I was flabbergasted too at first, but nothing surprises me any more!

Daffodilly - the snack machines are usually big fundraisers as the schools get a commission on every sale. I know many school districts have either limited access to snack & soda machines to the teachers lounge, or restricted what is available for students to purchase.

Geekymummy - DH served a deep dishpizza for lunch yesterday (a rare treat in this house) and I suddenly realized that of the 4 of us, I was the only one using a knife and fork!

Mary - I think many American kids are eating lots of finger food - chicken nuggets, burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches. Jamie Oliver made some breaded nugget-looking things from chicken fat and chicken skin while some first graders watched. They all said "Yuck!" but once they were cooked, they wanted to eat them despite knowing what nastiness went into them. He said he's never seen that reaction before when he's tried that exercise in the UK!

Iota said...

I missed the Jamie Oliver show, but having read you and Expat Mum, I've set the tv to record the rest of the series.

CharlotteTheAuPair said...

I'm an English au pair living with an American family, been here for around 20months now and it still shocks me that:
a) My kids don't know how to use a knife and fork properly (their ages are 8, 11 and 12)
b) The standard of meals that is acceptable for them to eat on a regular basis

Just this morning my 8 year old was having crepes for breakfast (yes, crepes - although I do make sure they are served with fruit) and I was sick of watching him use his hands and stuff it into his face. The past two mornings I have insisted he use a knife and fork. He was finding it so difficult (and he's a bright kid), holding the fork in the left hand and then changing to the right after he was "finished" with the knife. Attempting to shovel it into his mouth instead of using the knife to put it on your fork... it's disturbing that they don't know how to use it properly. When they set the table for dinner, they only get forks and sometimes a spoon. The first time I made a baked potato for them they struggled for ages trying to cut it with their fork before I suggested that they use a knife -- and I ended up cutting up their potatoes for them.

I can't remember a time when I didn't use a knife. I always had school lunches and there was always knives and forks available. But because I have been living here, I wasn't exactly surprised that the kids in Jamie's schools don't have knives or know how to use them.

My kids eat atrociously also -- it's either mac and cheese, or plain pasta with cheese and butter (how gross), pizza, pizza bagels, french bread pizza, hot dogs, or pigs in blankets (for dinner!).

And not once in all the time I have been here, have we all eaten the same meal. The parents ask what the kids want for dinner individually like they are in a restaurant, I was never given a choice as a child, it was either eat it or don't eat. I always make my own, healthier meals (with vegetables!) because I can't eat crap like that everyday.

Unknown said...

WOW, Charlotte, I am SO impressed with your post!!

Expat Abroad in Morocco

Almost American said...

Charlotte, the switching hands thing after you're done with the knife, I see as a cultural difference and is one that I can live with. (I do it myself some of the time now!) At least kids who do that are using a knife. My beef is with the kids (like the ones you work with) who aren't even given a knife in the first place and don't really know what to do with it!

Plain pasta with grated Swiss cheese was served regularly at my university restaurant in France - and one of my favourites but it was never the entire meal!

I know families where everyone gets a different meal. We don't do that, although there might be a choice of chicken or beef if DH is grilling, or a choice of leftovers.

Thanks for your comment!

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