My daughter Caitlin is a third grader at PS244Q, The Active Learning Elementary School, also known as TALES, in Flushing, NY. In between learning math strategies and writing exercises in class, Caitlin eats breakfast and lunch daily at school. The entrees offered include lentil chili, roasted chick peas with pesto, bbq or curried tofu, veggie quesadillas, empanadas, falafels, baked rotini, manicotti, stuffed shells and pizza. The sides offered include zucchini coins, broccoli trees, confetti corn, roasted cauliflower, kale and bean salad.

Did I mention that my daughter attends a vegetarian school? On April 30, 2013, TALES became the first NYC public school to serve a vegetarian menu for all meals.

Each month, I look over the menu that comes home on the back of the school calendar and go over with Caitlin what she would like to try during school meals. She would circle the choice she wanted to sample that day and we would later record in her food journal her reactions. We did a star rating system with new items she liked the most getting three stars, items she wouldn’t mind trying again getting two stars and items that didn’t work getting one star.

Caitlin is unfailingly honest when she likes or dislikes a new food. She won’t spare your feelings and will tell you something was “yucky”. I need to preface that Caitlin was the worst eater from age 2 until 5. She would rather skip a meal than try something new and every meal was a battle. Caitlin could live on chicken nuggets, plain rice and noodles without ever encountering a vegetable. She had chronic constipation and low core muscle tone and was seeing a nutritionist and gastro-enterologist. Since Caitlin’s been in school, she has learned that it isn’t healthy to starve herself and finds another food choice. Caitlin has her first and second choices in mind and turns to the cafeteria’s salad bar if she needs to supplement. TALES has been able to change my picky eater to a smart eater who understands that she has the power to choose foods to help her mind and body grow.

Annually each spring, TALES invites families to a nutrition workshop and dinner night so parents can experience firsthand what their children are having in school. My husband, who is a diehard red-meat eater, didn’t think he would like the vegetarian meal but was surprised that the food was tastier than he thought and quite filling. I was impressed by how flavorful and perfectly cooked the vegetables were and learned a few tips on what herbs to use and some new ways to prepare beans.

Many in our community welcome the change because the children come back home excited to talk about a new food they had tried. The other day, Caitlin said she wanted to buy cous cous in the supermarket! How did she even know that word? Caitlin had tried cous cous in school and liked it and wanted me to buy some to make at home. Unlike in the widespread news, when you hear of children from other schools dumping the “healthier” food choices from their lunch trays because of lack of taste or boring preparation and presentation, TALES students want to bring the healthier options home and talk about grocery shopping and cooking with their families. Caitlin wants broccoli (cut into “mini trees” of course) at every meal and will call me out if I forget to add her new favorite vegetable.

I think a lot of families, mine included, think that eating healthy is tough and expensive but it doesn’t have to be. As consumers, our voice is our most powerful tool. When I go to my local supermarket and don’t see a certain fresh produce, I let the manager know and tell him I love shopping at his market but would love it even more if he had this particular vegetable. If I get a group of families together all requesting the same item, the manager tries to keep prices reasonable to get our repeat business. If I eat out at a restaurant with my family, I often ask the server if the chef could substitute something and they are happy to oblige. Once I even had a chef come out during the busy dining hours to check if our table was satisfied with the substitution and he really listened to our feedback. The squeaky wheel gets the oil and when it comes to our nutrition, we have to be advocates for the health of all our families.

Our school’s PTA invited the Cornell University Cooperative Extension to introduce its Healthy Children, Healthy Families (HCHF) curriculum to parents and during a free 8-week workshop, we learned about new foods, making healthy changes and trying fun activities to do at home with children.

Under HCHF’s Keys to Success strategies, parents would teach by example, help children feel good about themselves, offer choices within limits and change environments to make healthy choices easier. At each workshop, participants identified a new healthy step to try with their families and then discussed their challenges and successes with the group.

We had 12 committed parents who participated in the workshop and some of the feedback heard included: “I buy less soda for my family now and drink more water”, “I added a new food to our daily meals and my kids tried it and didn’t hate it”, “I offer my child a fruit or vegetable snack and limit sugary snacks”, “My whole family is losing weight since we go out and play together and be more active instead of sitting home and watching TV”.

Changing a habit takes small steps but it is workable and the rewards are huge. Gradually, these steps lead to a better lifest‌yle for both parents and children and this is a veggie tale worth repeating every bedtime!