Chef Jamie Oliver Makes Over School Lunches

In an effort to reduce obesity among kids, this celebrity chef has come up with lots of healthy lunch ideas.

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on August 08, 2008
6 min read

Anglophiles know him as the British megastar who hit the scene in 1998 with his popular television series and corresponding cookbook, The Naked Chef. Food Network fans have since grown to love his fresh, simple, and savory flavor combinations -- and don't mind his charming banter, either.

But Jamie Oliver, 33, is much more than an attractive media personality with an undeniable talent in the kitchen. This TV gourmand, magazine columnist, married father of two girls, and best-selling author of eight recipe-laden books -- as well as Jamie at Home, to be released stateside in September -- is also on a nutrition mission.

Alarmed by the rising obesity rates and the amount of junk food being served to kids at school in his native U.K., Oliver requested and was given a meeting with then-prime minister Tony Blair back in 2005. The young chef issued a challenge to the powerful politico: Fix the dismal state of hot lunches. The School Food Trust was born, with its motto, "Eat better. Do better." Three years on, this government initiative swaps fried fare for wholesome vegetables, provides ongoing training to school kitchen staffs, and is slowly transforming how British kids eat.

Oliver sees parallels to the United States, with its epidemic of childhood obesity, the increase of type 2 diabetes being diagnosed among young adults and even children, and the vending-machine mentality of many school lunchrooms in this country. "What we eat affects everything: our mood, behavior, health, growth, even our ability to concentrate," says the chef. "A lunchtime school meal should provide a growing child with one-third their daily nutritional intake."

Joy Bauer, MS, RD, CDN, best-selling author of Joy Bauer's Food Cures: Treat Common Health Concerns, Look Younger and Live Longer, agrees. "Without a doubt, balanced nutrition is key for kids to maintain concentration academically. Every school lunch should offer both complex carbohydrates and lean proteins-a turkey-breast sandwich on whole wheat bread is a simple and perfect example of this -- to boost brain and staying power, level moods, and keep blood sugars on an even keel. In other words, a plain bagel, with nothing else, can produce volatile spikes in blood sugars and can set up kids for a crash."

And a healthy sandwich with low-fat mayo is just a start, says Bauer. "Fiber in produce is also extremely important because it slows the absorption of carbohydrates into the system, which also keeps blood sugars level. There should be at least one fruit or vegetable in every school lunch or lunchbox, and preferably both."

With these guidelines in mind, WebMD caught up with Oliver to ask how American parents can resist fast-food lunch shortcuts.

That was actually just part of the campaign. There was a lot more to it -- making sure that catering staff could get training, that each school actually had a kitchen, because many didn't, and essentially ensuring that kids were getting a hot, nutritious meal every school day, 190 days of the year. In a lot of places we visited, we had kids eating fries for lunch and then fries when they got home every single day, and that wasn't good!

I always said this would be a 10-year plan. ... Some of the things that were promised have been done, and some haven't. But I think things are slowly moving in the right direction. Many individual schools are making great progress.

I don't really fall for that argument. I've spent time in Italy and seen the poorest of people eating the most delicious -- but really inexpensive -- food because they know how to use ingredients. I've been to South Africa and seen women in shantytowns preparing meals for school kids that cost a few cents but had huge nutritional value. How much are a few vegetables? How much is a bag of dried [whole-wheat] pasta? I could easily feed a family of four for under $10 -- which is less than any junk food.

I'm lucky because the kids have always eaten well -- they got used to trying loads of new things when they were younger, so they got a taste for different flavors and textures. It's harder as kids get older, but if you persevere and don't get upset if they won't try new things the first time, eventually most kids will get into new tastes.

My dad always used the best food he could find. He visited local farms to source meat and poultry, and he grew his own vegetables as much as he could. He is a big inspiration to me.

WebMD consulted nutritionist Joy Bauer for a week's worth of healthy lunchbox ideas that taste great and give kids a smart start on the school day.

Monday Canned wild salmon, mixed with low-fat mayo, with whole-grain crackers

Tuesday Cold whole-grain pasta salad with roasted or grilled veggies (try zucchini, mushrooms, and red peppers)

Wednesday Nonfat yogurt, berry fruit salad, with peanut butter in celery sticks

Thursday Grilled or roasted chicken breast tenders, sliced red peppers, and low-fat cheese on whole-grain pita (try spinach pita as a kid-friendly alternative)

Friday Jamie Oliver's own pumpkin rice laksa soup -- perfect for fall (see the recipe below), with soy chips

Jamie Oliver's Pumpkin Rice Laksa Soup

Serves 6-8

Make this hearty fall soup for dinner, then pack a Thermos in your child's school lunchbox the next morning.

1 lb 6 oz pumpkin, butternut squash, or acorn squash, halved, peeled, and deseeded

Small handful of lime leaves

2-3 chilies, deseeded and finely sliced

2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced

2 thumb-sized pieces fresh ginger, peeled

3 sticks lemongrass, outer leaves removed

Large handful fresh cilantro, leaves picked, stalks chopped

1 heaping teaspoon five-spice powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

Olive oil

1 white onion, peeled and finely sliced

2 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 cup basmati rice

2 14-oz cans coconut milk

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Juice of 1 or 2 limes

Optional: 1 fresh red chili, sliced

Optional: fresh coconut, grated

Chop the pumpkin flesh into 2-inch pieces. To make your fragrant soup base, first chop, then whiz or bash up the following in your food processor or pestle and mortar until you have a pulpy mix: the lime leaves, chilies, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, cilantro stalks, five-spice powder, and cumin. Remove any stringy bits that may remain in the pulp. Put this fragrant mixture into a high-sided pan with a little oil and your finely sliced onion and cook gently for about 10 minutes to release the flavors. Add the pumpkin and the stock to the pan. Stir around, scraping all the goodness off the bottom of the pan.

Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer with the lid on for about 15 minutes until the pumpkin is soft.

Add the rice and give it a really good stir. Some of the pumpkin will begin to mush up, but you'll also have some chunks. Continue to simmer with the lid on until the rice is cooked, then off comes the lid. Add the coconut milk, stir again, taste, and season carefully with salt and pepper. To give it a bit of sharpness, add the lime juice -- the amount will depend on how juicy your limes are, but the idea is to give the soup a little twang.