Child Nutrition Directors Share Menu Inspiration Tips

Participation is at the heart of every school meals program. To keep growing a district’s customer base, it’s imperative that child nutrition directors continue to tweak menus to conform to new and evolving trends. FSD talked with directors to find out where they go for menu inspiration and how they’ve jazzed up their menus this year.

Where do you go for menu inspiration?

Miguel Villarreal (director of food and nutrition services, Novato Unified School District, California): Menu inspiration comes from many different sources. One example is Meatless Monday. We have always offered vegetarian entrées throughout the week on our menu, but we have never taken one entire day and made it meatless. I thought Meatless Monday was a clever idea that also allowed us to educate our students on not only their health but also the health of the environment.

Patricia Martinez (director of quality assurance, San Antonio Independent School District, Texas): Our inspiration for the menus comes from food shows that we attend where students are invited to participate and sample all of the foods. They fill out surveys and those results are posted. We also test a lot of the products with our students. We send out all of the different samples to different schools in the four quadrants of our district, which helps give us the different opinions from the students.

Wanda Grant (Palm Springs Unified School District, California): The best place for menu inspiration is to go to our customers. A student survey of what they like and don’t like will give us great insight. In addition we rely on the manufactures, brokers and distributors to let us know what is hot and selling the most.

Dianne Wortz (project manager, St. Paul School District, Minnesota): One source of inspiration is our diverse student population. This has resulted in menu items such as Hmong Beef Fried Rice, Chicken Suqaar (Somali) and Buffalo Wild Rice Casserole (Native American).

Catherine A. Brown-Giza, R.D. (food & nutrition director, Chandler Unified School District #80, California): My staff and I are always on the lookout for new menu ideas from our local restaurants, family, friends and, of course, our kids. I find sometimes if my six-year-old is excited about something I try it out at school. We are currently rolling out  a line of soups for our program, meat-based, vegetarian and vegan. A minestrone soup was my son’s idea. It's a vegan recipe and we serve it with spinach rotini.

Jeff Mills (executive director of food and nutrition services for the District of Columbia Public Schools): I usually get menu inspiration by looking at menus of chefs I am inspired by or by dining out. Since we focus so much on local, seasonal foods and seasonal menus are one of the primary trends in the DC dining scene, I don’t have to go far for inspiration. On occasion, I have approached DC chefs directly to come up with simple, appetizing recipes for an ingredient (salmon comes to mind). We then hold taste tests with students for the new menu items and incorporate what is popular into the menu.

Leah Schmidt (director of nutrition services, Hickman Mills C-1 Schools, Kansas City, Mo.): I am constantly looking everywhere for new ideas: SNA and industry food shows, magazines, cookbooks, Food Network, Internet and friends and co-workers. I am a Facebook friend with several local chefs and I even work part time at the Culinary Center of Kansas City where I assist chefs in teaching cooking classes. Last year we developed three recipes with the help of a group of 6th and 7th graders for the Recipes for Healthy Kids Challenge.

Jennifer LeBarre (director, Oakland Unified School District, California): I get inspiration from a lot of places: magazines, cookbooks, our employees, other school districts, the list goes on. The challenge is scaling these recipes up for our needs. Taking a recipe meant to serve six and getting up to 3,000, the minimum servings from one of our central kitchens, is a tough thing to do.

How have you jazzed up your menus in the last year?

Jeff Mills (executive director of food and nutrition services for the District of Columbia Public Schools): This year we are also featuring international menus four times over the course of the year. Our menu planning for our international days begins with the sponsoring embassies. Later, DCPS foodservice workers refine the menus to make them workable in a school cafeteria environment. We are hoping that the student reaction to the international menus will inspire us to incorporate techniques or items from the menu into our regular rotation. You can see what’s on the menu for Nordic Food Day, our first international day, here.

This year we’ve worked hard to improve our menus and give students new options, such as shrimp and grits and panko-crusted pollock. We’ve really been excited by how we’ve seen the students take to fish, which, prior to last year, had been off the menu for five years. We’ve spent a lot of time developing new fish and seafood menu items. As an example, we started doing fish tacos this year, which have been a major success. I was in Denver a few months ago for a conference and toured the plant where Chipotle gets its beans. At the plant, I tasted a spicy green sauce I thought would be perfect. So, over the summer we worked it out to be able to purchase the sauce in large quantities and now it serves as a perfect complement to our fish tacos.

Wanda Grant (Palm Springs Unified School District, California): The biggest change in our menus is the variety of the fruits and vegetables. We have always had a fresh fruit or vegetable available daily, but now we have up to five different choices daily. The most popular entrée still remains the spicy chicken sandwich, but pizza, cheeseburgers, burritos and rice bowls are here to stay for quite a while.

Dani Sheffield (executive director, Aldine Independent School District, Texas): We have made a commitment to have flavor first in our menus. They feature more fresh choices and seasonings including low sodium. All salads have been revised to include leafy romaine and spinach combinations as a base. Five salad choices are featured weekly including seasonal choices with fruit. New salads will be introduced throughout the year.

An oatmeal and yogurt bar is offered one day a week in all secondary schools and features toppings such as dried cranberries, walnuts, blueberries, diced apples, etc.

Fresh toppings for already-favorite menu items like Fiesta Taco Salads include homemade corn salsa and pico de gallo. Pasta bowls include fresh toppings such as mushrooms, green pepper, olives, zucchini, etc.

Leah Schmidt (director of nutrition services, Hickman Mills C-1 Schools, Kansas City, Mo.): This year we have added a turkey burger, a baked pasta dish, teriyaki beef fingers, a lasagna roll and Asian rice with veggies. We have changed our daily chef salads from plain iceberg to a romaine mix. Last year we added a daily vegetarian bean and rice option that consists of lime cilantro brown rice and black, pinto or great northern beans, and a new spinach salad with cucumbers, mandarin oranges and orange vinegar dressing.

Jennifer LeBarre (director, Oakland Unified School District, California): We’ve added new items like chicken and waffles for our breakfast for lunch menu, which was inspired by a local restaurant. We also are taking our cues from the restaurant trends by adding savory grits as a side dish for our elementary lunch menu. We are also moving away from premade and prepackaged as much as possible, including making our own pizzas using a whole-grain crust. This year we are adding Vietnamese pho soup and sandwiches to our middle school lunch menus.