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5 tips for launching family-style dining in the classroom

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During lunch, some of the youngest students at Houston Independent School District (HISD) can be found serving themselves in the classroom instead of standing in line at the cafeteria. 

“It started around our youngest customers not having enough time to eat,” says Betti Wiggins, officer of nutrition services for the Texas district. “Because of where they have to be located in the building for safety reasons, they were the furthest guys from the cafeteria.” 

Allowing PreK and kindergarten students to eat lunch at a normal time and giving them around 10 extra minutes to enjoy their meal, family-style dining also helps students learn proper table manners, personal hygiene and how to rely on hunger and fullness cues. 

“It was really about caring for our kids and better serving our kids, and making sure they had enough time to eat,” Wiggins says.  

Here are the steps they took to get the program off the ground. 

1.Get administrators on board   

Family-style dining in the classroom may not work for every school, cautions Area Manager Valarie Meinen, adding that schools with small cafeterias or those with a focused life-skills curriculum are particularly well suited. Operators should identify any schools that may have problems that could be solved by family-style dining and then meet with principals to discuss. 

The HISD nutrition team got teachers and administrators excited about the program by explaining the positive effects it can have on students, emphasizing how it would allow for more time to eat and provide additional educational opportunities. 

“The teachers and teachers’ aides truly care about the students just like we do,” Meinen says. “So, when we fully explain why we want to do it and how their students can benefit from it, they're more willing to support and jump on board with us.” 

2.Sort out the logistics with teachers

Once they had school administrators’ support, the team got to work on developing training for the teachers. Along with state-mandated trainings, the nutrition team also instructed teachers on program logistics, such as to always offer each food item twice as well as how to move the food carts from the cafeteria to the classrooms. 

Area Manager Kory Keimig came to the initial trainings with a filled-out Q&A sheet instead of the usual Powerpoint presentation. “I tried to answer [teachers’] questions before they had a chance to ask them,” says Keimig, who took the time to brainstorm and prewrite many possible questions and answers. 

To keep everything in order, teachers receive a daily menu sheet filled out by the cafeteria manager, which outlines what will be served that day and notes what components go into a reimbursable meal and what a serving size is. Teachers also completed a form that lists each student’s name and provides space to fill out which dishes they choose. 

“A teacher puts an ‘X’ in the box beneath each food item that a student took,” Keimig says. “So, if they took a slice of cheese pizza, under entree, they will put an ‘X’. If [students] only took a partial portion of something, we just put a slash in that box. That way, if [the teacher] went back around and asked [students] if they want more, and they said yes, they will put the other slash in the box, and it would make a X.”

Along with helping teachers keep track of who ate what, the sheets have an added bonus: giving the nutrition team instant insight into menu items’ popularity. “It's real-time feedback, we're getting this this form back every day,” Meinen says. “We're able to see what the students took and what they didn't take right on one sheet.”

3.Help staff schedule their day 

Moving to family-style dining meant that kitchen staff would have to shift their daily routine to accommodate serving, just as older grades were entering the cafeteria for lunch. 

Keimig sat down with the kitchen manager to figure out a new schedule for herself and her staff. “We didn't extend the day by 30 minutes to accommodate [family-style dining],” he says. “We looked at it and figured out how can we make the other things that we're already doing more efficient to find the time that we need to do this.” 

Kitchen staff also get their own daily checklist showing what needs to be on each food cart, which also helps staff stay organized, Keimig says. 

4. Find your supplies 

The nutrition team was able to repurpose the carts used for breakfast in the classroom to deliver the meals, but they did need to purchase serving utensils. Keimig and Meinen spent several hours at a restaurant supply store going through different types of round plates, bowls and other servingware. Everything that would be used for the program had to be easy for young students to maneuver and hold. 

5. Have students take the lead  

One of the goals with family-style dining is to develop students’ leadership and problem-solving skills. To encourage this, Valerie says that students are heavily involved once the food is delivered to the classroom. 

“Part of the program is to teach the students about sanitation, about hygiene, about the social skills and language skills, says Meinen, adding that students work with their peers to pass food around the table, clean up and address issues such as spills. 

“It teaches the students to be responsible,” she says. “They can take these skills they've learned and implement them at home or down the road.”  

Students are also in charge of selecting what and how much they would like to eat, which Keimig says helps them build confidence. For Wiggins, giving students control over what they want to eat is one of her favorite benefits of the program: “It's really a fulfilling for me as a foodservice person to see little kids engaging and selecting food that they want, not what I put on a tray.” 

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