Quinoa, kale, Brussels sprouts, tamales, green smoothies. These are all foods you might find in a trendy restaurant … or on a lunch tray in your local school cafeteria.
School lunches are fast overcoming their stereotypical reputation as bland and uninspired through some creativity and innovation by school nutrition professionals. On this National School Lunch Week, let’s take a look toward the future.
If you’ve ever tried to concentrate on something when you’re really hungry, you’ll understand that students don’t perform at their best without a nutritious lunch, which they won’t eat unless it tastes good. Schools are committed to providing great food in their cafeterias, and it can be challenging to be innovative when there are so many considerations, including:
• Making it tasty for a wide range of food preferences
• Making it easy to eat in a short period of time
• Cost and budgetary concerns
• Regulations and nutrition standards
• Allergies and dietary restrictions
• Sourcing and availability
• Food safety, storage and logistics
• Limiting food waste
Schools and school districts may operate differently, yet they share the common goal of providing meals their students actually want and will eat. These meals fuel students with the needed nutrients to grow and think. Improving menus can take some creativity, and that’s why culinary training events have proven so popular over the past nine years in Oregon.
Jessica Visinsky, a Registered Dietitian and trained chef, travels the state to teach child nutrition professionals about new recipes, knife skills, menu requirements and strategies to promote healthy eating. The trainings are sponsored by the Oregon Dairy and Nutrition Council and the Oregon Department of Education Child Nutrition Programs, and are offered at no cost to the schools.
As a result, school nutrition professionals are preparing more scratch recipes, often from the Oregon State University Food Hero program. Check out Food Hero for recipes that can be made at home and with kids. Students have responded positively. Many also explore farm to school opportunities to include seasonal fruits, vegetables and other local foods year-round.
The school lunch of the future will likely include more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Some are taking a serious look at plant-based diets and some are looking at local, sustainably sourced center-of-the-plate proteins such as seafood and beef. These are all complemented well by the nutrition provided in dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt. Restrictions will continue for sodium, sugar and unhealthy fat, driven by science and recommendations from USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
You don’t have to gaze into a crystal ball to see the future of school lunches is looking bright. On this National School Lunch Week, we salute all of those who work so hard to put nutritious and delicious foods on our students’ trays. Thank you!