Teriyaki coho salmon skewers in Alaska. Red chile beef enchiladas in New Mexico. And Vietnamese pho soup in California.
Inspired by new nutrition rules, districts are now offering these and other meals in hopes of getting students to eat healthier by appealing to their taste buds. And rather than hiding the nutritious ingredients, schools are enthusiastically educating students about the health benefits of ingredients such as whole-grain breads and low-fat cheese.
Here are some examples of new dishes—and other strategies—districts are serving up so students will think of school meals as appetizing and healthy.
Lunch menus nationwide
Many districts are spicing up their menus with meals students eat at home. Robert Schram, director of food service at Clovis USD in California, says the district’s innovative meals are healthy, hearty and creative—with an ethnic twist.
Mexican and New Mexican favorites, such as corn chip pie and red chile beef enchiladas, are favorites in Taos Municipal Schools, says Mary Ann McCann, student nutrition director.
Both Pinellas County Schools in Florida and Boulder Valley School District in Colorado found that their high school students liked spicy and highly flavorful foods. The districts added ethnic flavors, such as orange chipotle and cherry blossom chicken. Boulder Valley’s “street tacos” are prepared from a middle school Iron Chef competition recipe and come with locally made corn tortillas, and the familiar salsa fresco and black beans.
Sitka School District, on an Alaskan island, serves fish from local fisheries in savory items such as teriyaki coho salmon skewers, cornmeal crusted rockfish sticks and sockeye salmon melt on pita.
“In general, most of our recipes have not needed adaptation to be healthier; we selected them to be healthy to begin with,” says Sarah Ferrency, co-principal of Sitka’s Pacific High School.
Waukon High School, in northern Iowa’s Allamakee Community School District, has altered favorites such as pizza and chicken nuggets and have replaced some typical ingredients with healthier whole-grain dough, fresh vegetables, low-fat cheese and low-sodium homemade sauces, Principal Dan Diercks says.
Costs and preparation
Lunch costs, sampled on April 28 across several districts, varied from $1 to over $3, with extra fees for gluten-free items and other specialty dishes.
Preparation, a big driver of costs, varies from district to district. Some districts find cooking from “scratch” is key, while others find benefits from outsourcing food preparation.
For instance, the Clovis district outsourced food preparation for quality control, safety and sanitation reasons. In addition to gaining valuable time for cooking, the district also saved on liability insurance because the staff members were not using knives and cutting food.
Ann Cooper, the food services director at Boulder Valley schools, says she has saved money by streamlining the preparation and procurement processes. She has used the money to add organic ribs, hormone- and antibiotic-free hamburgers and other natural, higher-cost items.
Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, says schools are experimenting with healthier ingredients, like legume dips and white whole wheat flour, to make meals more appealing to children. Schools can market nutrition programs with student-organized taste tests, Pratt-Heavner adds.
Schools also should let students help design menus, says Laurie Klein, vice president of business development for The Family Room, a consulting agency that conducts market research on kid and family brands.
Appealing to all ages
With school meal programs operating on tight budgets, a failed dish can be costly, Klein says. Appealing to each age group with different presentations can increase participation in food programs. For instance, elementary students tend to dislike foods mixed together and prefer finger foods, dips and wraps that can be eaten with one hand, Klein adds.
While younger students might be limited to certain foods, many high school students like to eat out. So district food service leaders must come up with menus that are at least as tasty and fresh as the meals students can find at nearby restaurants.
“The challenge when you [food service staff] get to secondary schools is that the students eat out a lot more,” says Catherine Gerard, food and nutrition supervisor for the Pinellas district. “We try to have menus that at least have entrees that they will find appealing and familiar.”
Ariana Rawls Fine is newsletter editor.
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