Nutritionists responsible for setting school lunch menus in Maine are working diligently to put more healthy food in front of our kids. And they are crunching numbers to afford their young charges – whenever tight district budgets allow – an opportunity to munch on local fruits (mainly apples), vegetables (mostly corn) and, in a few very select cases, proteins (primarily ground beef).

But is it working? Are our kids clamoring for an organic Maine apple on their lunch tray, or are they still secretly hoping for a bag of Doritos?

Last week’s New York Times carried an article on “Why Students Hate School Lunches.” The writer reported that school meals complying with criteria set by the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2012 – light on fat, sodium and calories and heavy on lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains – simply don’t taste good.

Local school nutritionists certainly understand how regulations designed to make lunch more appealing to a healthy body can make it less appetizing to kids’ palates. They are fighting this paradox on three levels: timing, use of spices, and a plea for parental reinforcement of the message that healthy food can indeed taste good.

Martha Spencer, director of food services for the South Portland Public Schools, feeds about 40 percent of the district’s 3,100 students. She says the short lunch period is a deterrent to healthier eating. The children have just 20 minutes get through the lunch line, socialize and eat. Fruit and vegetables take more time than softer foods to eat, and often aren’t consumed before the bell rings.

Two of Spencer’s less affluent elementary schools meet the federal criteria for a Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Grant, which allows her to offer fruit and vegetables to kids in their classroom during the day. When kids have the time to eat an apple – and nothing else is on offer – they are happy to do so, Spencer says.

Alisa Roman, nutrition director of the Lewiston Public Schools, feeds 100 percent of the city’s 5,500 students within the confines of federal funding alone. She gets happier eaters when she spices things up. Chicken curry on Fridays, taco bars on Tuesdays and Italians (a souped-up sandwich popular in Lewiston) on Thursdays strike the right balance between healthy and tasty.

“We’re up against a whole army of food scientists whose job it is to make junk food more addictive. So we’ve got to figure out ways to jazz up healthy food to compete,” says Katie Workman, a New York-based cookbook writer who focuses on feeding kids interesting food. Workman suggests taking something as simple as a deviled egg or an egg salad sandwich (recipe below) and using it as a teaching tool, a blank canvas to help kids find the spice and herb combinations that make food more appealing to them. “Giving kids an opportunity to cook their way through the spice drawer teaches them a huge lesson in healthy eating,” Workman says.

Spencer and Roman applaud the many programs brought to schools – like Let’s Go!’s 5-2-1-0 Goes to School, Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters, and SNAP education cooking classes – that give kids hands-on experience with kitchen experimentation and help open them up to more flavorful healthy foods.

The trick to turning this finite classroom time into long-standing habits is constant reinforcement at home. Cook at home with your kids whenever you can.

FORK IN THE ROAD EGG SALAD SANDWICHES

For cookbook writer Katie Workman, few things are better than a perfect egg salad sandwich. But she acknowledges that her idea of perfection doesn’t necessarily fly with her kids. In her latest cookbook, “Dinner Solved: 100 Ingenious Recipes That Make the Whole Family Happy, Including You,” she offers recipes that come together 90 percent of the way with a middle-of-the-road preparation and then present a fork in the road for experimentation to suit the tastes of individual family members.

Makes 2 fat, or 3 restrained sandwiches

6 hard-boiled eggs

⅓ cup chopped celery

¼ cup minced onion or 2 tablespoons minced shallot

¼ cup mayonnaise

Salt and pepper

4 to 6 slices of bread

Optional add-ins: 2 teaspoons curry powder; 2 teaspoons minced dill, basil, tarragon; 1 teaspoon rinsed and chopped capers; 2 tablespoons sweet relish or minced dill pickles; 1 teaspoon minced, seeded jalapeño

Optional pile-ons: lettuce, sliced tomato, watercress, arugula, halved olives, shaved radishes, sliced onions, chopped cucumber

Gently combine the eggs, celery, onions or shallots, mayonnaise, salt and pepper in a medium-sized bowl. If you like a smoother egg salad, you can pulse the mixture in a food processor.

If you like the basic recipe, move on to assembling the sandwiches. But if you want to take a fork in the road, combine your choice of add-ins and stir them into the egg salad mixture.

Spread the egg salad onto 2 or 3 slices of bread. Top with any pile-ons, then with second slices of bread. Cut sandwiches in half, wrap tightly, and place in your lunchbox.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer and tester, and cooking teacher in Brunswick. She writes about feeding her family Maine seafood at www.familyfish.net. Contact her at [email protected]