Creative Cafeterias

October 16, 2017

Teenager eating healthy lunch with friends in school lunchroom

The National School Lunch Program serves more than 30 million children every school day. Of the 5 billion lunches served annually, the USDA reports (Source: USDA FY 2016 preliminary data) there are:

  • 20.1 million free lunches
  • 2.0 million reduced price lunches (students pay $0.40)
  • 8.2 million full price lunches

School Nutrition professionals are continuously asked to do more with less. Food isn’t their only cost; there are also the costs of labor, supplies, and indirects (e.g., electricity, custodial help). A recent School Nutrition Association survey revealed that nearly eight in every ten school districts have had to take steps to offset financial losses since the new nutrition standards were implemented. Actions include reducing staffing, deferring or cancelling equipment investments, and diminishing the meal program’s reserve fund, which is critical for investing in program improvement.

Despite these challenges, School Nutrition professionals are demonstrating their creativity and care for children. Conduct a search for school lunch (meal) success and sites like the following will pop up:

  • School Nutrition Association’s Tray Talk blog and Facebook page for parents feature school meal programs nationwide that are finding creative ways to improve menus and get students excited about healthier choices.
  • On Pinterest, Rock in School Meals has posted Grab-N-Go meal ideas.
  • School Meals That Rock is an organization that features school nutrition programs.

Creative successes include:

  • Student involvement: Healthy Kids Challenge worked with one Florida school to conduct a fun HKC Ready-Set-Cook-and-Eat event, during which students created dishes that became school menu items! A recent School Nutrition Association survey found that 72.3% involve students through taste tests/sampling.
  • Chefs Move to Schools: The program focuses on the interests and expertise of each chef volunteer and the needs of each school.
  • Farm to school programs to incorporate local foods into the menu.
  • School gardens.
  • Food trucks serving summer meals, and at another Florida school, a “Truck of the Month Program.”
  • Grab-and-Go Meals.
  • Food service directors “coaching” nutrition.

Celebrate these and other accomplishments! Share your success on the Healthy Kids Challenge Facebook page.

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School Caferteria Line

Preschools and daycare centers can help build a foundation for healthy eating and physical activity choices. In the most recent WOWS Newsletter, we shared the three actions that will help make a difference that lasts for a lifetime:

  1. Plan fun, hands-on learning activities
  2. Model and repeat the healthy message… play, taste and learn with kids
  3. Share the message with parents and caregivers

A 4th category of actions are “nudges.” We’ve used this term in our columns before. It is a word made popular by Cornell University’s Smarter Lunchrooms Movement.

Nudges are like the things retail marketers use to encourage consumers to buy. Good examples are retail store end caps or products placed by the checkout lanes. When it comes to kids’ places, consider these successful “nudges”:

  • A 2016 study reported in Pediatrics found that in school cafeterias with vinyl banners depicting vegetable superhero characters, more young children took vegetables from the salad bar.
  • Studies have also shown an increase in the selection of healthier foods when they are at eye level. In one example, preschoolers took cartons of lower fat milk when they were easier to reach than the higher fat choice.
  • Encouraging students to take fruits and veggies as they go through the line increases selections.
  • Giving fun menu names to fruits and veggies “nudges” healthier choices. So the next time you post a menu, have fun with creative names, like “Crunch a Bunch Salad,” “Rocket Carrots” or “To-My-Toes Tomatoes.” Better yet, help kids come up with silly names!

Make a Healthy Difference, Learn – Model – Share – and Nudge

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This week’s WOWS Newsletter guides educators or parents through an easy-to-prepare recipe. The recipe and suggested activities make a very good addition to this summer’s Healthy Me Journal.

In the newsletter, the learning exercise following the recipe points to a link in the ChooseMyPlate.gov website to help kids gain some understanding of recommended food group amounts. As ChooseMyPlate states, the key to healthy eating is choosing a variety of foods and beverages from each food group.

Visuals are helpful for learning. The MyPlate image is one visual that guides healthy choices. Everyday objects can also help kids visualize portion sizes. Collect and talk about the following items:

1 cup = a baseball                                                      3 oz. muffin or biscuit = a hockey puck

½ cup = a cupcake wrapper full                             3 oz. meat or chicken = a deck of cards

1 oz. (2 Tbsp) = a golf ball                                        2 Tbsp. peanut butter = a ping pong ball

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This week’s conversation during National Nutrition Month® is to challenge you to “Put Your Best Fork Forward” when you are away from home. Whether you are making choices in restaurants, convenience stores or from vending and concession stands, we are often tempted by large portions of high fat and sugary snacks.

There are a number of choices you can make for a healthier meal that you can thoroughly enjoy. Here are some ideas to “meet the challenge.”

  • At fast food restaurants, choose the junior or smaller sandwich, share the small fries, and choose water or a small drink.
  • Going out for pizza? Enjoy the thin crust with extra veggies.
  • At “order from your table” restaurants, share an entrée or choose a smaller portion entree option if it is available. Skip the fried foods and creamy sauces. Choose salad with a light vinaigrette dressing on the side.
  • When stopping at a convenience store, stick with the small snack bags of nuts, yogurt, string cheese sticks, whole grain cereal cups, whole grain granola bars, fresh fruits and baby carrots.

Small boy and his sister cooking in the kitchen

Let’s review what we know about the benefits of kids in the kitchen. It is a way to:

  • Start the conversation and help kids develop skills, like healthy meal planning, shopping, cooking and clean-up that last a lifetime.
  • Help them feel good about themselves; the delight and pride in making something themselves.
  • Become aware of what to look for on nutrition labels.
  • Learn about food safety.
  • Help them discover the appeal and taste of foods they prepare.

Beyond those great benefits, it is a way to build appeal for healthier choices. It is not hard to imagine how using elements similar to those in art can build appeal for healthier meals. Try the following and add it to your collection of healthier holiday foods.

Blueberry-Pineapple Parfaits

  • 1 can (20 ounces) pineapple chunks, drained
  • 1 container (8 ounces) fat-free lime-flavored yogurt
  • ¾ cup fresh blueberries
  • ¾ cup fresh strawberries, chopped
  • ½ cup granola

In a small bowl, combine the pineapple with half of the yogurt. In small parfait or juice glasses, alternately layer the pineapple-yogurt mixture, blueberries, strawberries and granola. Repeat the layering twice. Top each parfait with a spoonful of yogurt.

Teachable moments:

  • Compare ingredients in the recipe for taste, texture, and color.
  • Discuss how the taste and appearance would change by substituting plain for flavored yogurt.
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