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10 ideas: How to get students to empty their trays

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Here’s a simple truth about food: “It’s not nutritious unless you eat it,” says Mary Kate Harrison, general manager of student nutrition services for Hillsborough County School District in Tampa, Fla. “We could put out the best quality, most expensive, most culinarily-enhanced foods, and if [the students] don’t eat it, it doesn’t matter.” hand ice cream scoop

With the march toward reauthorization of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act under way as of press time, operators still are working hard to meet the nutritional requirements on their menus. From crafting appealing packaging to involving students in taste tests, K–12 operators share their best practices for reducing cost and food waste.

1. Try creative marketing

To support an effort to introduce Loudoun County Public Schools students to produce they might not have tried at home—like parsnips and beets—Domokos-Bays and her colleagues worked with the district’s graphic arts department to create promotional posters. The high school-aged initiative, Fear Factor Friday, has a horror movie theme. “You might have the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and his head will be a beet,” she says. Domokos-Bays also hired a marketing coordinator to start this fall and promote foodservice efforts among students and parents, from speaking at PTA meetings to sharing dining news and updates on Twitter and a dedicated blog.

2. Tailor to generational trends

Presentation can make all the difference when it comes to catering to different age groups. At Minneapolis Public Schools, Weber has undergone a casserole case study, of sorts. “Every time we’d try to do more of the comfort casserole type of dish, those flop at the elementary level. They just think it looks horrible … even if it’s really tasty. But the high schoolers grew up with it,” he says. Domokos-Bays says high-school students’ more sophisticated palates have prompted the addition of a condiment bar. “Our kids like flavor and ‘hot’ is a good spice for them,” she says.

3. Play-up appealing packaging

Janice L. King, foodservice director at Auburn and Leicester Public Schools in Massachusetts, targeted kindergarten through second grade for a new lunch initiative in the past year. “I am new to this district, and we had not in the past had the participation that I would like to see from this age group,” King says.

She partnered with a parent on the district’s wellness committee to design an online survey to learn more about food preferences and decision-making. They learned that only 52 percent of parents included vegetables in their child's lunches; that parents valued convenience and nutrition over price when purchasing school lunch; and that students in this age group tended to like plainer foods. In response, the district launched a whole new product.

“We chose to brand our own bento-style serving box as a ‘Lunch Launcher’ to match our school mascot, which is the Auburn Rockets,” King says. Offerings change daily and feature a fruit (strawberry or melon bites, seedless grapes), vegetable (carrots and ranch dressing), grain (whole grain crackers) and protein (cheese cubes, diced turkey, peanut butter), plus a choice of milk. Colorfully branded “Lunch Launcher” stickers on the box added visual appeal, and parents were satisfied with the nutritional value and easy-to-eat options. “[Parents] commented that it was a ‘really fresh approach to school lunch.’”

4. Let students choose

At the high school level, Becky Domokos-Bays, supervisor of school nutrition at Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia, draws inspiration from quick-serve restaurant concepts. This school year, a new My Way Cafe concept will feature five rotating themes. “For example, we have an Asian day, and the kids can pick whatever they want—rice, lo mein—made to order. It looks fresh to them; it’s on-trend,” she says.

Additionally, Loudoun’s high schools are adding a self-serve fruit and vegetable bar, a switch from pre-portioned servings. “We’re not going to worry if they take two carrots and five broccoli spears, as long as they get that half cup,” Domokos-Bays says. Made-to-order salad and sandwich stations proved equally successful at Hillsborough high schools, says Harrison, but  the salad stations were discontinued at some elementary schools because interest in them waned; sandwiches remained popular however.

5. Partner with local chefs

A desire to help promote and endorse school meals at Minneapolis Public Schools inspired Weber to launch a partnership with local restaurants called the True Food Chef Council in 2013. His founding philosophy was to rebrand MPS dining not as “school food” but “true food.” “Start thinking as your program as one of the largest restaurants in the community,” he says. “As such, we are part of the local food scene and partnering with other great chefs and restaurants makes perfect sense."

Chefs from participating restaurants and catering companies—there are more than a dozen involved and many are also parents—create new recipes or modify existing recipes for the school.

Examples include a curry chicken bowl from Caribbean restaurant Brasa Rotisserie and beet hummus from farm-to-table restaurant Wise Acre Eatery, both in Minneapolis. “I got an email from a parent asking for the recipe for the ‘pink guacamole,’” Weber says in reference to the latter dish.

6. Make a date with kids' taste buds

When Hillsborough launched a sampling program for fruit and vegetable-based dishes called Taste It Tuesday about two and a half years ago, participation was inconsistent, Harrison says. Publishing a schedule of which recipes would be prepared—pineapple salsa or carrot soufflé, for example—and sampled on Tuesdays helped the initiative gain traction. Staff hand out samples table by table and hits are added to the menu.  “The kids go crazy. They know it’s Tuesday, and you’d be surprised at how many kids will try the sample that may not ever try it going down a line,” Harrison says.

Weber also swears by taste tests. Districtwide tastings three times a year at the elementary level introduce options to students, ask for feedback and invite them to name the new menu item. “What we find is that if we put something new on the salad bar and we don’t do the taste test first, it kinds of sit there,” Weber says.

7. Give veggies a boost

Bright colors, crunchy textures and simple seasonings such as winter and summer squash roasted with salt, onion, garlic and olive oil have worked well in Weber’s district. “[Forget] the notion that we shouldn’t add anything to vegetables. I don’t know who came up with that, but that’s not how we eat at home,” he says. Oven-roasted fall and winter vegetables have also gone over well at Hillsborough. “We’ve gotten some nice testimonials from parents saying, ‘Thank you for teaching my child to eat butternut squash!” says Harrison. 

8. Timing is everything

Just as important as what students are eating is when they’re eating it, says Sheldon Gordon, brand chief for nutrition and technical assistance in the USDA’s Child Nutrition Programs. For example, is lunch followed by recess? “We know there’s definitely a higher risk and increased chance that children will be hungrier after recess or P.E. than having it before, because they’re just so anxious to get outside,” Gordon says. “Because of scheduling, some [schools] are starting lunches as early as 10:30 a.m., which is fine if you didn’t eat breakfast. Johnny who just ate at 7 or 8 o’clock, he’s probably not that hungry.”

At Auburn and Leichester, King's preference is recess scheduled before lunch, though not all schools are able to comply. “We find that children are more settled to eat their meals … and this, we believe, is due to them being more hungry and being able to socialize more before lunch,” she says.

9. Just try it

“First and foremost, we need to break the myth that kids are picky eaters and that they have ‘kids taste,’” says Bertrand Weber, director of culinary and nutrition services at Minneapolis Public Schools. “We as adults develop their taste. As a society, we’ve done a terrible job in forming their palate to have a preference for sweet, fast food, highly processed salty things. That’s not what we are born with.”

Giving children the opportunity to embrace complex flavors that some might consider more “adult” has paid off. “We have an apple-kale salad that kids loved, [and] a Moroccan bean salad I would have never thought that they would like,” he says.

10. Above all, be flexible

“Feeding kids is a dynamic process, always changing,” says Harrison. “We’re always try to find new ways to try and please them.” Realizing when best practices of the past are no longer working and shifting gears also is key, adds Domokos-Bays. “This My Way Cafe [concept], you know, if we get two to three years out of that, it’ll be great. We might have to move on to something else and that’s fine,” she says. “One advantage you have is that you get a different crop of kids coming into middle and high school every year.” 

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