4 menu ideas to beat the winter blahs

soup bar

Menu innovation can fall into a rut in winter, what with the limited fresh produce selection and dearth of local ingredients. But resourceful chefs and foodservice directors are not letting slim pickings hamper their culinary inspiration. These operators are enticing diners with customizable comfort foods, healthy spins on all-time favorites and regional specialties with local roots. Read on for a few. 

1. Do the mashed potatoes

mashed potatoes

Although potatoes are in good supply throughout the winter, serving them for school lunch day after day can get boring. To keep students excited about spuds, Joe Urban, director of food and nutrition services at Greenville County Schools in South Carolina, sets up a mashed potato bar with a choice of protein-rich toppings to create a nutritionally balanced meal. Although several options are available, turkey pot roast and meatballs are the most popular so far, says Urban. The mashed potato bar was launched in December and will continue through the winter. Urban reports that it has been an enormous success with students, adding that his research shows kids tend to eat other vegetables when paired with potatoes.

2. Customization simmers at the soup bar

soup bar

At Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland, Ore., a branded soup bar has increased overall sales of soup without taking customers away from other options, according to Food Service Director Kristen Trout. The soups use frozen, vegetarian bases—a move that saves labor and provides a universally acceptable starting point. From there, customers can add meat, poultry and seafood if they wish, along with black beans, broccoli, kale, peppers, scallions, cilantro, cheese, rice, noodles and other ingredients. Signage offers suggestions on soup combinations, such as Thai Coconut Soup and Vegetarian Pho Noodle Soup—the two favorites, says Trout. The self-service soup program has spurred an increase in participation and now operates in two additonal retail locations. A small size sells for $4.95, while the large goes for $5.95.

3. Wings get grounded

bbq chicken

With the Super Bowl and March Madness around the corner, foodservice operators are digging into the recipe files for chicken wing variations and setting up DIY saucing stations. But Chris Studtmann, district executive chef for Sodexo at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., is offering an alternative. “I want to do less frying of food for athletes and other health-minded students,” he says. So instead of fried wings drenched in a spicy butter sauce, Studtmann developed a Buffalo roast chicken. A whole chicken is marinated in a housemade wing sauce consisting of tomato juice and spices, then cooked until it gets a nice, crispy skin, he says. It’s a comforting, more versatile choice that can be served as a dinner entree as well as a game-day option.

4. A little local flavor

chicken and waffles

While local ingredients may be hard to come by in winter, it’s possible to add local flavor to the menu. On Jan. 31, Residential Dining at Pennsylvania State University in University Park will offer a Pennsylvania Dutch meal during two dayparts. Chicken and waffles star at lunch, while dinner features ham pot pie and German redskin potato salad. Two other regional specialties—pickled eggs and shoofly cake—are available at both meals.

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