Meat’s been expelled from New York City schools on Mondays. But the substitute might not be much better.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced this week that all New York City public schools will have Meatless Mondays — meaning that cafeterias would serve only vegetarian meals on the first day of the week — starting this fall. De Blasio debuted the news by proudly digging into a grilled cheese and a pile of baked beans at PS 130 in Kensington, one of the 15 Brooklyn schools that participated in a Meatless Monday pilot program starting in spring 2018. Officials say they were successful in getting kids to actually eat and enjoy the meatless options — which include vegetarian tacos, chili and, yes, grilled cheese — so they decided to expand the program to the rest of the city’s 1,800 schools.
De Blasio and school officials are patting themselves on the back for the move, which they say is good for kids’ and the planet’s health. They point out that using less meat will cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and one in five NYC kindergartners is obese.
But meatless doesn’t always mean better for you, according to health experts.
“There’s a very easy way to be less healthy by going meatless,” says Amy Shapiro, a registered dietitian, and nutritionist based in Noho who has three kids in the NYC public school system. “My kids might get a big pretzel or garlic bread at school — I don’t know where the nutrients are, but I know it’s meatless.”
Robin Barrie, a nutritionist who specializes in kids’ eating, agrees — and doesn’t think de Blasio should look so smug about that cheesy sandwich.
“Grilled cheese as part of a healthy balanced diet is fine,” says Barrie. “But I don’t consider it healthy on its own. The saturated fat in a grilled cheese is almost the same as the saturated fat in red meat.”
Plus, the one-day-a-week shift will have a limited impact if the rest of the week’s menu isn’t nutritious, says Barrie, who has worked with schools, including PS 6 on the Upper East Side, on their menus. At PS 130, where de Blasio announced the plan, vegetarian chili and veggie tacos are on the menu for the next two Mondays, but the following Tuesdays bring hamburgers and cheeseburgers — not exactly a dietary win.
And the kids are savvy to the fact that their “healthy” day goes by quickly. When asked about whether her classmates were annoyed by Meatless Mondays, 14-year-old Ella Rindler of PS 130 told CBS New York, “Some people say, ‘I want my chicken nuggets,’ but they serve that on other days.”
That’s why selling kids on healthy meatless meals is going to be such a challenge for New York City cafeterias, says Emily Burson, founder of California-based school-menu consulting company School Nutrition Plus.
“The [meals] with cheese are the biggest hits because it’s familiar to them,” Burson says. “That’s what they see on kids’ menus at restaurants, which are generally processed food high in fat and sodium. So we’re really fighting against those kids’ menus at restaurants.”
‘Grilled cheese as part of a healthy balanced diet is fine. But I don’t consider it healthy on its own.’
So, sure, kids will chow down on grilled cheese, but “it’s a little harder” to convince kids to eat vegetarian meals that are also legitimately healthy, she says.
Meatless dishes developed by her company generally have a lower success rate when they test them in schools — Burson estimates about half of their meatless dishes are flops among kids, compared to about 75 percent of the dishes with meat in them.
“They don’t want to see big chunks of tofu,” she says. “We have to crumble it up and make it look like meat,” like they did with their “Sloppy Jane” sandwich that has seasoned tofu crumbles instead of the beef of a Sloppy Joe.
And tastier meat substitutes, such as seitan, tend to be expensive for schools, so it may be more cost-effective to rely on alternatives including cheese, which is high in saturated fat and lacks the iron that meat has, and beans. The school district’s menu designers aim to make their meatless program cost-neutral, officials say, and sample menus appear to rely mostly on beans and cheese.
Plus, kids tend to not like trying new things, Burson says. When her company was developing a chili made with walnuts instead of meat and tested the dish on an all-girls middle school, it was a “hard sell,” she says.
“It took getting the most popular girl to try it for the rest of the girls to try it out,” Burson says with a laugh.
Nutritionists, such as Barrie, say that done right, the program’s main benefit will be exposing kids to a greater variety of foods.
“Familiarity breeds liking, so it might take a kid 50 exposures to one food to develop a liking for it,” Barrie says.
But only if it’s done correctly. “It’s pointless if their options are going to be meatless, but white flour- and sat-fat-laden,” she says.