Wheeling School Puts Kids in the Kitchen

From-scratch soups. Freshly baked bread with no preservatives. Homemade applesauce. Veggies from the garden.

No, it’s not the menu of the new bistro in town. It’s what’s for lunch at Wheeling Country Day School.

The independent school serving 3-year-olds through fifth-graders adopted a new lunch program this school year, run by London-trained chef Myra Orban and Julie Cartwright.

The lunch program is part of the new Kids in the Kitchen curriculum that emphasizes fresh, local, healthy and tasty foods served to a student body that is vested in it. Many of the menu items – particularly sauces, salsas and salads – include ingredients that were planted and harvested by the students from the school garden.

And each grade level rotates through “Try It Tuesday” and “Try It Thursday” classes taught in the kitchen lab, where each child learns about the origin of a recipe – which can include a cultural or history lesson – and about its ingredients. Each student then helps prepare the recipe and taste-tests it, ultimately logging a vote on whether it should appear on the menu.

The labs are cross-curricular, incorporating math and science as well as history, culture and nutrition.

“Mrs. Orban and I feel strongly that the kids should have a voice in what they have for lunch,” Cartwright said.

On a recent Tuesday, the second-graders were in the kitchen lab making Johnny Appleseed salad, a variation of Waldorf salad. Cartwright talked about John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed, and asked the students what they knew about him. She then told them how the original Waldorf salad was created in 1893 by the maitre’d at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. She mentioned the savoriness of the salad and how fruit doesn’t always have to be used in sweet recipes. This recipe included apples, grapes, celery, dried fruit, mayonnaise, yogurt and lemon juice.

Cartwright then called the students up one by one to wash their hands and complete a task. One student sliced and chopped the apples under Cartwright’s watchful eye. Another chopped the celery. Some students took turns adding ingredients and stirring while others passed out tasting cups, napkins and spoons. When it came time to taste, only two students opted out, which is always permitted. Some dug in while others proceeded more cautiously, sniffing first or dipping a fingertip in the dressing. Before the 40-minute class was over, each student placed either a red or green ticket in Cartwright’s jar, giving the salad a green or red light for a future menu. Green dominated that day.

These kid-tested recipes encourage students to try dishes they might never try otherwise. This also helps Orban and Cartwright expand the variety of the menu. Other than a few slam-dunk items that appear every month (such as pizza and all-beef hot dogs), children are served a different, balanced meal every day on a three-month rotation, Orban said.

Parents are given the next month’s menu in advance, from which they can choose and pay for the days their children will opt in for “hot lunch.” This allows the chefs to plan appropriately. The flat fee for hot lunch is $3 a day.

“We are still evolving as well,” Orban said. “Today, we have a new recipe for baked french toast. They loved it. They had several helpings so it must be OK.” That day’s menu was “Breakfast for Lunch” and also included a fresh fruit medley and turkey sausage mixed by hand.

“Myra is absolutely amazing in the kitchen. She makes everything from scratch,” including sauces, soups, dressings and gravies, Cartwright said. Orban, originally from a remote coastal village in Scotland, trained with an Austrian chef in London and became a head chef in Inverness, Scotland, before managing a hotel. An avid gardener, she has lived in the United States for 14 years during which she has been a stay-at-home mom until coming to Country Day.

Cartwright is no stranger to a stove and cutting board, either. She is passionate about giving children a holistic education about food and was responsible for bringing the National Association of Junior League’s Kids in the Kitchen program to Wheeling in recent years.

The chefs are committed to reducing sodium, sugar and fat where possible. Orban and Cartwright recently developed a lower fat Ranch dressing using Greek yogurt, for instance.

As for using local ingredients and/or local suppliers, the pair has forged relationships with Packer’s Orchard in Adena and Jebbia’s in Wheeling for produce, Jacob’s Meats in Martins Ferry and Riesbeck’s bakery in Wheeling, which bakes all the bread.

“We give the kids half wheat and half white. We don’t want to switch them over too fast,” Cartwright said regarding students who might be used to eating only white bread.

These unconventional “lunch ladies” also keep an eye on carbs and calories. They serve only one red-meat entree and one pasta dish a week. Part of the Kids in the Kitchen curriculum also focuses on international cuisine, so each month features an international day. And at least once a month the school spotlights a local restaurant that caters the day’s meal. Processed and frozen foods aren’t completely absent, but they are limited. In September, for instance, the only frozen dish they served was ravioli, Orban said.

“We would love to go organic,” Orban said, but they haven’t found a local producer that can provide the quantities they need. “We are doing the best we can with what we have available.”

This week’s menu looks like this:

Monday- Cauliflower cheese and crispy potato pie, vegetable medley and watermelon

Tuesday – Beef brat with gravy and Yorkshire pudding, apple crunch pie

Wednesday – Celebrate France day with quiche Lorraine, ratatouille and mousse au chocolate

Thursday – Three-cheese linguini, bologna roll and grapes

Friday -Baked pork chop, fall veggie mix and health bar.

On Monday, Nov. 22, Salsa Cafe of Wheeling will cater; and on Tuesday, Nov. 23, parents are invited for a Thanksgiving feast.