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Why Houston Independent School District introduced family-style dining in the classroom

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During lunch, pre-K and kindergarten students at Houston Independent School District (HISD) can be found serving themselves in the classroom instead of standing in the cafeteria line. Here’s why.

Making teachable moments

“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.”

Another goal of the family-style dining program was to help students learn proper table manners, personal hygiene and how to rely on hunger and fullness cues. “They can take these skills they've learned and implement them at home or down the road,” Area Manager Valarie Meinen says.

Developing their leadership and problem-solving abilities was on the agenda, too.  To that end, Meinen says students are heavily involved once food is delivered to the classroom, adding that they work with their peers to pass dishes around the table, clean up and address issues such as spills.

Where to start?

In the beginning, the HISD nutrition team built teacher and administrator excitement for family-style dining by describing the positive effects the program can have on students, emphasizing how it would allow more time for them to eat and provide extra 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.”

Along with state-mandated trainings, the nutrition team also instructed teachers on logistics such as how to move food carts from the cafeteria to their classrooms.

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 as well as which components go into a reimbursable meal and what a serving size is. Teachers also complete a form that lists each student’s name and provides space to notate which dishes they chose (as part of the protocol, teachers offer each item to students twice).

Along with helping teachers track who ate what, the sheets give instant insight into items’ popularity. “It's real-time feedback,” Meinen says. “We're getting this form back every day.”  

Scheduling shifts

Moving to family-style dining meant that kitchen staff needed to shift their daily routines.

Area Manager Kory Keimig sat down with the kitchen manager to figure out new schedules: “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.”

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. They sought out servingware that would be easy for young students to maneuver and hold, and have also found success using measuring cups and utensils intended for occupational therapy.

Still, family-style dining in the classroom may not work for every school, Meinen says, noting that schools with small cafeterias or those with a focused life-skills curriculum are particularly well-suited.

And the upsides have been tangible: Putting students in charge of selecting what and how much they would like to eat helps them build confidence, Keimig says.

For Wiggins, giving students that control is one of her favorite benefits of the program: “It's really 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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