From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Chinese Food, Cafeteria Style

 I was invited out for lunch by Renee, one of my long time friends, and we decided that I would introduce her to Pei Wei Asian Diner. As she had never been there, I felt that it was only fair to introduce her to something different in the world of Asian food.

Our meal started with an order of edamame, and I ordered the Pei Wei Spicy, which had fried chicken, sugar snap peas and carrots and was drowned in a spicy chili vinegar sauce, with brown rice. Renee had the Dan Dan noodles, which were egg noodles topped with chopped chicken that had cooked in a garlic soy, served with scallions, bean sprouts and cucumbers.

Ironically, we both noted that the meal, while tasty, was loaded with sauce and sodium, making it a rather unhealthy meal. In fact, the most healthy part of the meal may have been the edamame, which is high in protein.

While the traditional Chinese food is very healthy, with an emphasis on vegetables, with meat being utilized more as a “condiment” than the main focus of the meal, the Americanization of food has resulted in an end result that is higher in fat and calories, and as Pei Wei proved, much higher in bold flavored sauces and seasonings.

(A little secret: Those of you who are brave enough to try and eat with chopsticks – do so!! A diner generally eats more slowly, since it is more difficult to grasp larger quantities of food than would end up on a fork. Also, using a pair of chopsticks also reduces the amount of oil that ends up being consumed.)

After the meal, I was left wondering what some of the healthy options might have been for the meal, and how that would possibly work into my campaign for San Antonio City Council. Cafeteria food is generally considered the subject of rude jokes and grim recollections from yesteryear. Think of it as a popularity contest between hospital food and prison chow, with cafeteria food making a surprising showing. But whether or not more exotic choices, such as sushi, or even a vegetarian stir fry could be added to the menu of a youngster’s cafeteria fare is nowhere near the forefront of many schools’ considerations.

The Texas Department of Agriculture reigns supreme over the Public School Nutrition Policy. Their guidelines are set up to appease the parents, administrators, school officials, health professionals and lastly, members of the food industry. Foods MUST meet the TPSNP standards if made available to students of school campuses.

With this in mind, it seems, sadly, that Asian food in the school environment may generally only make an appearance during a class or school heritage enrichment program. Such programs must be officially scheduled and part of the written curriculum, which then means that administrators have the authority to override a teacher’s decision to have such an event. Foods brought to such events must clearly identify nutritional information, especially if cooked with a potential allergen, such as peanut oil. Sadly, this tilt towards healthier dining options does not eliminate vending machines with sodas in them, or salty or sugary snacks.

In all reality, since so many of the public school systems release their menu early, allowing parents to decide whether or not to send their child/ren to school with a sack lunch that day, it is feasible to incorporate tasty and healthy dining options which COULD include the occasional Asian food choice. Asian foods can be mass produced on a scale to feed kids running through the line at a breakneck pace, so the evolution of cafeteria food is due to allow this kind of tasty transition. After all, “healthy” does not have to mean “not tasty.” It could also give nutritionists additional options as far as offering a meal that is simultaneously cheap, appealing and nutritious.

We can’t be fooled into disguising healthy food in pretty presentations, though. It needs to be understood that children have become more sophisticated in their tastes (try dining with mine) and thus often welcome new offerings such as sushi and chicken satay. Just don’t expect to see it in a cafeteria any time soon. Kids will also be able to identify the faux foods, like peanut butter made from soybeans, or low fat cheese pizzas. Forget about trying to offer a tofu burger. Therefore, if we were to offer a chicken stir-fry, it would be just that. Small pieces of chicken, stir fried with a minimal amount of oil, and loaded with vegetables that kids generally will eat at home.

Sadly, this taxpayer subsidized meal is often times the most healthy, nutritious meal that many of our children will get in a day. Thus, it is important that it be palatable, if not memorable.

This is what I would LOVE to see in a cafeteria – definitely a list of some of the healthier choices:

• Egg Drop, Miso, Wonton or Hot & Sour Soup.

• Stir fried, steamed, roasted or broiled entrees, such as cashew chicken, shrimp chow mein

• Steamed or baked tofu. (Yeah, right)

• Entrees made with lower sodium or lower caloried sauce, such as ponzu, rice-win vinegar, ginger and wasabi

• Steamed brown rice

• Edamame

If we do see anything, as long as it is not a fried, drowned option, it may pass. Skip the fried rice as well. And the egg roll. And the sweet and sour sauce. Sorry gang. We will figure SOMETHING out…

Until then, Good Eating, Friends…

Pei Wei Asian Diner on Urbanspoon
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