3 tips to consider when making the menu more culturally diverse

Baltimore County Public Schools' Bettina Applewhite shared some steps her district has taken during the School Nutrition Association’s Annual National Conference.
A bowl of bibimbap.
Photo: Shutterstock

Bettina Applewhite makes it her goal to provide culturally inclusive meals for the diverse student body at Baltimore County Public Schools.

“We don't have to make it like Grandma, but the point is to try to have something similar, to have something that feels familiar to them when they come into the cafeteria,” says Applewhite, senior operations supervisor for food and nutrition services at the Maryland district.

During the School Nutrition Association’s Annual National Conference this month in Orlando, Applewhite shared some steps her district has taken to diversify its dishes.

Here are a few of the tips she offered.

1. Look to restaurants

To find out what global dishes are popular with customers, see what restaurants in your area are serving. If big chains are introducing certain dishes such as bibimbap, then they’ve become mainstream, she says.

Operators should also pay attention to independent restaurants in the area, since they can offer a look at what populations in your community are growing.

“In my neighborhood, there went from zero Peruvian restaurants to about three or four in a five-mile radius or less,” says Applewhite. “So, that population is growing. Even if that population isn't growing, students in that neighborhood are being exposed to those cuisines.”

2. Engage customers and staff

Students and staff can also be a source of menu inspiration. Applewhite suggests reaching out to the district’s student culinary program, if one exists, to see if they would be interested in coming up with recipes as part of their class. Schools can also try holding a recipe contest, inviting students to submit recipes from their heritage, or encouraging staff to submit family recipes that can be incorporated into the menu.

3. Experiment with spices

To add a global or regional twist to meals using ingredients you already have, Applewhite recommends testing a variety of spices. Spice blends such Old Bay and Chinese Five Spice can turn plain ingredients into something more interesting.

“These are just blends that you can just shake on to your broccoli, your cauliflower or foods that you already have,” says Applewhite.


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