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5 steal-worthy tips for scratch-made meals

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Photograph courtesy of Napa Valley Unified School District

Adding scratch-made meals can be a daunting task for operators faced with untrained staff and old equipment. Brandy Dreibelbis, director of nutrition services for Napa Valley Unified School District in Napa, Calif., and Adam Russo, director of school food and nutrition services for Prince William County Public Schools in Manassas, Va., share some tips for those making the leap into scratch-made meals.

1. Fundraise for professional development

When Dreibelbis came to Napa Valley Unified School District two years ago, she found that staff was excited to transition to scratch-made meals but many required additional training.

“My district hadn’t budgeted my department for any sort of professional development,” she says.

Dreibelbis was able to get Whole Kids Foundation and the Humane Society to offer free training for her staff, but she still needed to raise funds to pay staff to come in for the extra time. She turned to a local nonprofit that was holding a 5K run in her community. They arranged to have a portion of the proceeds from the race go toward professional development for her staff.

2. Design one recipe for different pieces of equipment

When working on recipe development, Dreibelbis makes sure to write different versions of the recipe to account for the different types of cooking equipment that will be used to make the menu item.

“With roast turkey for example, the cook time might be completely different in a convection oven than in a combi,” Dreibelbis says. “And not only is the cook time going to be different, but you'll probably end up with a different yield as well. A convection oven has a very dry heat, and then a combi oven is actually providing moisture, so you get a plumper, usually better and more-moist final product. So you're ending up with a little bit more of a yield as well.”

3. Use bulk ingredients multiple ways

At Prince William County Schools, the dining team uses USDA ground chuck for a variety of menu items. The ingredient makes its way into dishes such as nachos, burritos and tacos, Russo says.

4. Keep an eye on the kettle

Staff at Napa Valley know they have to continuously watch the older equipment.

“I've got some old steam jacket kettles that have hot spots, or that get to a certain temperature,” Dreibelbis says. “Once you get them up to temperature, they just stay at this super maximum temperature and it's hard to control.”

To make sure food doesn’t come out under- or overcooked, cooks have different ways of working with the equipment depending on what they’re making.

“If you're boiling water, for example, you kind of have to turn it off instead of letting it go, or know that once your product gets to where you want it, you have to get it out of that kettle right away or it's going to just keep cooking it to death,” she says.

5. Don’t take no for an answer

“You kind of just have to do it,” Russo says, when asked how operators can begin to offer scratch-made items on the menu.

“There’s always going to be someone that tells you how hard it’s going to be and how you can’t do it. A lot of times opportunity looks like hard work,” he says. “If you listen to everyone who tells you how it won’t work, you'll never get anything done. Take baby steps, incorporate one item, see how popular it is, incorporate another and figure out how to get your way in there, but don't take no for an answer.”

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