By Lori Zanteson
School lunches have been in the spotlight—as well as under the microscope—lately. Between last year’s shake-up with the first new healthier lunch standards in 15 years and then the slew of protests that followed, you’ve got to hand it to K-12 foodservice pros for an all-out effort that raised the bar not only on nutrition, but on innovation and kid appeal.
Getting kids excited about increased servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains is not for the faint of heart. But our nation’s school cafeterias are dishing up healthy meals to the more than 32 million kids on school lunch programs like never before!
What’s their secret? A steady stream of interactive strategies that are sure to kick-up any K-12 meal program:
- “A Tasting of the Rainbow” encourages students to try new and healthy foods in a rainbow of colors, says Jodi Risse, MS, RD, LDN, Division of Food & Nutrition Services of Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Maryland. In a partnering of the department of health, the PTA, and the school administration, every child receives free samples of foods they may never had seen before—kiwi, kale chips, jicama, for example. Risse then incorporates the new item into the school menu. Risse says the kids are less hesitant with each offering and are soon requesting the items.
- Celebrate it! Showcasing is a surefire and fun way to introduce a new or healthy food item to kids. Whether it’s one specific food—like blueberries—or a particular color of foods—purple—or foods of a certain shape—oval—the focus becomes a learning opportunity larger than the food itself. The take-home? The more fun they have, the more likely they are to try these healthy foods again.
- Mixin’ it Up. There’s nothing like hands-on experience when it comes to expanding kids’ food choices. Whether this means planting a school garden and having the kids harvest and sauté green beans for an afternoon snack, inviting a parent, chef or local farmer to demonstrate a kid-friendly meal, or hosting a contest where kids create a recipe and compete for the chance to prepare and serve it at school, the results will get them actively interested in the food they eat.
- Play it Cool. First grade or twelfth, kids like to play with their food. Give them ingredients to inspire their inner artists: Fruits and vegetables cut into bite-sized pieces for little kids to form into rainbows, flowers and critters. Add toothpicks for 3-D sculptures. How about whole grain graham crackers, nut butter, dried fruits and nuts to build a “gingerbread house?” Older kids enjoy a challenge, like mosaics or self-portraits.
- Mystery Menu Item. Switch out the chocolate chip in a cookie for a blueberry or cranberry and see if the kids can guess what it is. Mix chia seeds into oatmeal or a smoothie and see if they can name that crunch. Changing it up with the unexpected adds that sense of daring and adventure kids crave. Why not give it to them in a healthy way?
Lori Zantesonis a writer, editor, and writing instructor. Specializing in food, nutrition and health issues, her work appears locally and nationally in a diverse selection of publications, both print and online, including magazines, journals, and newsletters and websites. Striving for optimal health and wellness through food and healthy living keeps her motivated to empower others through writing. www.lorizanteson.com