How to Create Lasting Change in School Lunch Programs

How To Create Lasting Change In School Lunch Programs

Thu 05 Apr 2012

Story by Erin Dow

Chef Erin Dow’s Top Tips for Consultants

My highest priority as a school nutrition program consultant is to create healthy menus that appeal to kids. Balancing taste and health can be a tricky task, and it’s complicated more in the school lunch setting, where we also have to contend with the stark realities of tight budgets and production limitations.

The most critical element to our success is to prove to children that healthy food not only tastes great, but that eating it makes them feel good. I want them to know that they made a choice to eat something healthier, and I want to know why these foods help them be better and stronger people. Once we establish a priority on healthy meals, we can adjust our production models, staffing, food ordering, and menu planning accordingly.

I have a checklist of things I want to accomplish each time I work with a school. I believe that unless each element is in place, my visit won’t be anything more than a one-time special occasion. I want my efforts to result in lasting changes for each school I work with.

Additionally, I want them to be replicable in other schools, so I pay special attention to making recommendations and providing solutions that can work in any nutrition program.

Here are my top three tips for those of you developing menus for schools in your community.

1) Start out with known winners: a good first experience with a healthier food means kids will be more open-minded in the future.

Start small and stay safe: choose a dish or a menu that’s a known winner. Most schools tell me chicken nuggets are the top menu item. Well, they’re also easy to make homemade. Try my recipe for Parmesan and Panko-Crusted Chicken Fingers. I’ve done these from scratch for 650 kids at a time, and they’re cheap, easy, and the kids adore them.

2) Work with familiar flavors in novel ways: when kids are comfortable with an element of a dish, they’re less likely to resist the rest of it.

Pasta salads are a great way to introduce new items like beans and dark greens to kids. My BLT pasta salad has a low fat ranch dressing base, but the tons of baby spinach we add introduces a new element within a safe flavor matrix. Likewise, our bean and corn pasta salad tastes has a familiar Tex Mex flavor, so the cilantro and black beans are introduced in a less threatening way.

3) Rename a dish: sometimes that’s all it takes.

Cooked carrots are a tough sell to kids because of the texture. Well, since I renamed oven-roasted carrots “Carrot Fries” and serve them with a “ranch dip,” which is simply a mixture of plain Greek yogurt with herbs, lemon juice, and water, they’re a favorite on the lunch menu. Kids are impressionable, so I don’t name them “Superfries” or “Silly Stix”; rather, I want to make sure that the novel name still refers to the actual ingredient. Otherwise, kids won’t learn they like carrots.

The hard work of improving school lunches is made simpler by keeping the eye on the prize. The more positive experiences children have with new and healthier foods, the more likely they are to experiment with them moving forward. I hope my tips, as common sense as they seem, increase your chances of making a positive impact in your community. Keep up the great work.

Find out more about Erin and some of her work and tips for getting healthier foods in schools and making long lasting change in this video.

About the author: Erin Dow is the Expert Chef for Guiding Stars, an objective nutritional guidance system. She regularly consults with school nutrition and employee wellness programs on healthy menu development and operations management. Erin conducts cooking classes and provides food education to children as a chef participant in First Lady Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools initiative. She lives in rural Maine with her husband and three children.


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