How the culinary team at the Georgia Department of Education brings scratch-made meals to schools, with excitement baked in

During a session at FoodService Director’s annual MenuDirections conference, the team shared how they build staffs’ confidence in the kitchen and get them excited about scratch-made meals.
Session at MenuDirections
Members of the Georgia Department of Education's Culinary Team shared ways they are helping schools embrace scratch-made meals. | Photo by Benita Gingerella

Transitioning to scratch-made meals can be a huge undertaking for K-12 operators.

During a session at FoodService Director’s annual MenuDirections conference, which was held this week in Atlanta, members of the culinary team at the Georgia Department of Education shared with attendees how they help school nutrition teams across the state make strides with cooking from scratch.

“We are hyper focused on the quality of the meals and being able to train the school nutrition staff on developing flavors, new techniques, new recipes,” Culinary Specialist for the Georgia Department of Education John Huff told attendees.

Here are some ways the team is helping school nutrition programs throughout the state to embrace scratch-made meals that were shared during the session.

Show rather than tell

The culinary team implements a show-rather-than-tell approach when teaching staff to get them to really understand how different preparation methods, spices and more can impact the final result.

For example, they will run a training where they have staff prepare vegetables different ways, including steamed, a low-temperature roast and a high-temperature roast. They then have staff taste each vegetable so they can see how the preparation method impacts the food’s texture, taste and smell.

Make the most of equipment

School nutrition teams not making the most of their equipment is a common occurrence, said fellow Culinary Specialist for the Georgia Department of Education Michael DuBose.

“We go to a lot of schools, and we're seeing equipment under trash bags,” he noted.

Therefore, a focus for the culinary team is teaching staff how to utilize equipment to make their jobs more efficient.

Similar to showing staff how different cooking preparations can cause food to taste different, Huff and DuBose both employ a show rather than tell mentality when it comes to kitchen equipment as well.

For example, during a visit to a school kitchen DuBose was able to show a staff member how much easier it is to prepare ranch using a vertical cutting machine (VCM) instead of by hand by having them prepare the ranch both by hand and by using the VCM.

Start slow

It can be tempting to try and take on a lot at one time, but school nutrition programs should start small, build a good foundation and then work their way up to more advanced recipes and processes, said DuBose. 

“Look for that 1%,” he shared. “Increase by 1% what you're doing today, increase your quality, increase your production, increase that food knowledge, by just 1%.”

Build a base of recipes

To keep things simple, the culinary team encourages school nutrition operators to focus on recipes that are mainstays in school cafeterias.

 “There are some items that are just staples at school nutrition,” said Huff.  “So, pizza, chicken sandwiches, rice, pasta, all of these things are going to be ubiquitous across every school across the state.”

By getting proficient in these base recipes, nutrition teams can then use those as jumping off points to take a recipe a step further using things like different cooking techniques and spices.

Both DuBose and Huff recommend that nutrition teams make the most of their spice racks and create their own custom spice blends instead of just relying on premade ones. That way, they can vary the flavor profiles for whatever they’re making

“[If you only have a pre-made spice blend] no matter what you're making, everything's going to taste the same. It's the same old flavor profile across everything, my green beans, my potatoes, my chicken, my beef, whatever,” said DuBose.

Show confidence on the line

By building confidence in the back-of-house, staff will also have more confidence when they’re on the line serving students

“If your staff is happy, they're confident in what they're doing, then they're going to be happy on the line too,” DuBose shared.  

Staff can use that confidence to their advantage and help encourage students to try something new. For example, they can tell students a little bit more about what they’re about to eat and let them know it was made from scratch.

That way, once students sit down at the table, “they've already got a positive mindset,” said DuBose.



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