No such thing as a free lunch (literal edition)

It never ceases to amaze me that people are surprised by things like this: Kids in England don’t like the healthy lunches the schools are serving them. Why are they surprised that kids will happily accept a change in their routine that is shoved down their throats. (Of course, the same people who pushed for these changes are equally happy to shove things down the throats of adults they disagree with, so I don’t know why I’m surprised by any of it.)

As I see it, there are four major variables that contribute to the quality and desirability of food:

  • taste
  • healthfulness
  • ease of preparation
  • cost

The contribution of each variable to a food’s desirability is dependent on the individual in question, obviously, but as a first approximation, desirability is directly proportional to taste, healthfulness, and ease of preparation, and it is inversely proportional to cost. In other words, people tend to want food that tastes good, is good for them, is easy to prepare, and is cheap.

The problem is that these are not independent variables. Ease of preparation requires preprocessing that degrades healthfulness (unless you want to eat all raw foods). Cheap ingredients don’t taste as good and aren’t as good for you as expensive ones; as a rule, you get what you pay for. The cheapest and easiest way to take cheap ingredients of poor quality and make them taste good is to add fat and sugar — both of which our biology attracts us to, because humans evolved in times of scarcity not abundance — and salt, which enhances whatever flavor is present. All three in too great a quantity are bad for you.

To make everyone happy in the school lunch wars, we’d have to serve lunches that meet all four criteria. Activists and most parents want food that’s healthy; kids want it to taste good; schools need to keep the preparation as simple as possible; and schools and most parents want to keep costs down. But there simply isn’t much food that is tasty, healthy, cheap, and easy. I agree that schools ought not be serving junk and calling it dinner, but anyone who wants to improve the overall quality of school lunches needs to start from a realistic assessment of what’s possible and be prepared to work within those constraints.

2 thoughts on “No such thing as a free lunch (literal edition)”

  1. I liked this line from the article: “Although Britons collectively are not yet as fat as Americans, they are the fattest people in Europe.”

    And Kevin Morgan is a blowhard. “Parents are giving their children packed lunches, which are invariably inferior from a nutritional point of view to the school meals from which they were recoiling,” he said.

    Yes, parents invariably give their kids inferior lunches. Stupid parents.

    Anyway, every now and then Nicole and I get down to this authentic Italian grocery store downtown, dish out the cash for all the expensive ingredients, and cook up something special back at home. Right there, you’ve got taste and healthfulness, and as for preparation, that’s just fun (because we don’t have to make 650 portions, I suppose). But cost? Yeah, cost is a big one. It’s the one people forget about when they get self-righteous about McDonalds.

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