Zucchini Carrot Muffins and Healthy School Lunches

Mention “school lunch” and I’ll immediately picture canned peas — those not even close to resembling fresh, bright green peas, but little greyish, squishy orbs of awfulness that rarely left the Melmac tray they were plopped into by the school lunch lady.  No, they, like so many other questionable lunch offerings, ended up in the trash along with the nutrients that were supposed to have ended up in a child’s tummy.  Do canned peas actually contain nutrients?

It was rare that I had to dump my lunch in the trash because my brother, sister, and I carried it to school, packing it ourselves by the time my mother had returned to work before my 7th grade year of school.  In earlier years, we went home for lunch and made that ourselves as well.  A standard lunch was a baloney or salami sandwich, or sometimes peanut butter and jelly, and on great days, tuna.  Lettuce and tomato were added when available, and I remember, because the tomato always made the bread a bit soggy.  An apple, orange, banana, or tangerine was included along with a handful of something salty, like potato chips or fritos.  Once in a while, a pickle, sliced cucumbers, or carrots and celery were included.  A couple of cookies like Oreos topped things off, and after we no longer carried a thermos, a nickle for milk completed our lunch.  Good thing, too, because more often than not, the thermos in the lunchbox jostled around enough to end up smashing the chips into crumbs, and bruising the apple or banana.

I can still remember the smell of my school lunchbox and it’s not an unpleasant memory. Hilarious, yes.

I taught my boys to make their lunches by the time they were in first grade not because I wanted to torture them, but because I wanted them to have some degree of responsibility for themselves.  Of course, they needed help and my watchful eye, because let’s face it — leaving out the fruit and veg to add extra sweets wouldn’t be out of the question for any of them.  It took them longer to make it than if I’d done it, but doing everything for them wouldn’t, in the long run, be good for them.

Thinking about it now when school lunch programs are rightfully under the microscope, perhaps we avoided the poor nutritional quality school lunches have historically had because we packed our lunches.  You’re probably thinking that baloney and salami aren’t exactly nutritional, but if you had as much experience looking at school lunches as I’ve had, you might understand.

When I became a teacher, dropping my students off at the lunch court was always an interesting task.  It didn’t take long to learn that no matter which school I worked in, student lunch favorites consisted of pizza, hamburgers, tacos, and maybe spaghetti.  I won’t go into detail describing what those three “entrees” looked like, but will say that if any of them had turned up on my plate instead of what one colleague described as mystery meat — a light brownish sort of patty covered in a gelatinous sauce of a similar color — I’d have eaten them.  The sad thing is, someone used to monitor the trash can, and if a child was going to throw any uneaten item out, it was set aside, and another child could take it if he or she wanted seconds, and many did because they were hungry.  In later years, I learned that for many of them, their school lunch was the only meal they had all day.

During much of my career, I worked in schools where there were a substantial number of students who qualified for free or reduced price lunch and yes, breakfast as well.  One school in particular had a 99% poverty rate, so everyone’s lunch and breakfast was free.  Morning duty was spent making sure that the parents who dropped their children off at school for breakfast didn’t sneak their younger children into the breakfast line, or even more tragically, sit beside their Kindergartener, and when no one was looking, eat some of the breakfast themselves.

I know you’d rather not hear these things, and that on a food blog, reading about how to make a healthier muffin is much lighter Monday reading, but I’ll get to that, and ultimately, this problem will affect all of us in a variety of ways if we aren’t more aware of it.  We all know of Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and the impact she has had on helping to change the way Americans eat, but how many know of The Edible Schoolyard and its mission to “Cultivate a New Generation?”  Last year, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution was launched to bring awareness to the problem by calling on all Americans to learn more about the food they eat so that they might influence their children — which is a much bigger problem than the quality of a school lunch, but that’s best saved for another time.

Locally, about 10 years ago, San Diego’s largest school district launched a campaign to create a better school lunch by adding self-serve salad bars in schools which included fresh fruit choices, dried fruit, and items such as sunflower seeds.  Yogurt appeared, and a greater number of vegetable-based entrees were added to the school lunch menu with fewer packaged “heat & eat” items.  This transitional period brought interesting reactions from some adults who commented that the children couldn’t serve themselves, would make a mess, and slow down the lunch line.  It’s amazing what kids are capable of if provided guided direction and then little or no interference from us.  We expect them to do that in sports and other activities — why not when it comes to making food choices?  Recently, San Diego USD Food Services Department joined the National Farm to School network and is on a quest to continue to improve not only the quality of their food program, but student understanding about healthy choices.

Chef Ann Cooper the Renegade Lunch Lady, is drawing attention to the quality of school lunches and their impact on the health of our children as well.  She will be launching a 3-day event in San Diego with a keynote speech on Friday, October 1st that promises to inspire people to get more involved in influencing the quality of school lunch programs.  Visit the Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center website for more detailed information about the Saturday, October 2nd Organic Garden Dinner, and the Sunday, October 3rd Garden Picnic.

For more information about rethinking school lunch programs, as well as general nutrition for our children, visit the Center for Ecoliteracy.  You may also be interested in information about the USDA’s National School Lunch Program, or the perspective on healthy school lunch from School Nutrition Association.  You might also check out Cafe Mom’s “Ask the Expert:  All About School Lunches” to find out what others’ concerns are.

Recipes for Healthy Kids showcases Let’s Move! toward healthier meals in schools and a contest awarding $12,000 to a team who will develop recipes for school lunch menus.  They provide information for how to get your local school district involved.

Related information from bloggers:

Cooking Up a Story “Farm to School:  A Conversation with Marion Kalb”

What’s Cooking Blog  “School Lunch Reform”

I’m retired from my work in schools now, and fresh out of boys whose nutrition I need to think about, but my husband and I are in serious need of revisiting our own nutrition to shed some weight.  Now, what about a healthy muffin that is light, delicious, and so easy to make you’ll want them for breakfast, or maybe as a sweet treat with lunch?  If you’ve got young ones at home, have them cozy upside you to make a batch of these yummy morsels.

Zucchini Carrot Nut Muffins

1/2 c. brown sugar

2 T canola oil

big pinch of kosher salt

1 lg. egg

1 c. zucchini, grated

1 c. carrots, grated

1/4 c. dried cranberries

1/4 c. pecans, chopped

1 c. all-purpose flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. cinnamon

Preheat oven to  375 degrees F and lightly spray a standard 6-cup muffin pan, or use containers that will hold about 1/3 c. of batter each.

In a medium bowl, mix the sugar, oil, salt, and egg.  Add the zucchini, carrot, cranberries, and pecans and mix well.  In another bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients and fold them into the wet mixture, working the batter only just until all ingredients are moistened.  Divide the batter evenly into the cups and bake until a wooden skewer inserted into the center is removed clean, about 20-25 minutes.  Remove from oven and allow to sit in the cups about 5 minutes before turning out on a baking rack to cool completely.


  • You couldn’t have paid me to eat zucchini when I was growing up, but that’s because the only squash we had was cooked to a mushy consistency, so that meant all types of squash were suspect.  It wasn’t until I was in my early 20’s, a mother with two kids and a veggie garden that produced zucchini the size of battleships that I began to appreciate what could be done with this remarkably versatile vegetable.  I don’t think there’s a way to cook zucchini that I haven’t tried.
  • This muffin recipe was adapted from one posted at King Arthur Flour.
  • It is so moist and perfect in flavor, you’d think I wouldn’t want to change it any more than I have, but I’m thinking whole wheat flour and egg whites might be a good thing to try.
  • Of all the muffin recipes I’ve tried and posted here, this is the most moist considering the oil content.  I know there are many that use applesauce to reduce fat even more, but I’ve still got that on my list to try.
  • I looked at more than 10 recipes before I chose this one to play around with, and I’m surprised at just how different they all are when I look closely at the mix of dry and moist ingredients.  It’s incredible — especially with those recipes purported to be “healthy.”
  • The cranberries are such a nice touch in these, their tart sweet flavor enhancing that of the other ingredients.
  • A bit of orange zest wouldn’t hurt, but isn’t necessary even though I love orange zest in baked goods.
  • A scrambled egg with one of these would make a nice breakfast, or pop one in a lunch bag.
  • Oh, and by the way, using those little bite-sized carrots isn’t such a great idea unless you want all of the skin on your knuckles removed.  I had them in the fridge so there you go.  Thankfully, I have one of those gloves that protects your skin and other body parts when using a mandoline, and so my knuckles survived.  If you still don’t have a Microplane grater, you need one — just grate larger carrots!