Monday, May 14, 2018

Hey Faithful Followers! Trying to take a more positive perspective, I have decided to change the title of my Blog & corresponding Facebook Page. It took a while to gain approval from Facebook, but that has finally been approved. I am now #HealthyFoodFuelsHungryMinds, and I have  migrating my blog to that same name and on another blog hosting site.   

You can browse on over to:  All of my old posts are there, and I'm ready to start posting some more content... so head on over & follow me on and on Facebook at Healthy Food Fuels Hungry Minds!

Same content, new title, new web address!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Kicking out the Salt... Kicking up the Flavor! Strategies to enhance flavor & increase participation in School Meals!

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I always seem to have a song stuck in my head.   And last week, as I was thinking about the strategies that we had used in our RSU#14 (Maine) to decrease the sodium levels in our school meals, Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville found its way into my thought stream...

"Searching for my lost shaker of salt... salt... SALT!"  It doesn't even make much sense... but there it was, endlessly tracking though my consciousness.   But then I got to thinking ... maybe Jimmy, and we, should stop looking for our lost shaker of salt, and instead learn to season food appropriately and with LESS salt, allowing the natural flavors to come through! 

Since 2010, School Nutrition Directors across the country have been striving to lower the sodium in the school meals that they serve, in order to meet the Target 1 sodium level guidelines of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010.   8 years into HHFK, some districts are still finding the lower sodium guidelines  challenging.    I'll admit - decreasing the salt in our own district has been a process, and as I tell people all the time, you can't change everything overnight.  It's too drastic.  It can be unfamiliar and/or burdensome  to your staff and your customers.     Over the years, we have gotten it... and  I always like to think of the process as steps on a journey.  That way, if you get off track, you can always go back to the steps in the plan & get right back on track again, kind of like a road map.  Perfection is not required... just forward movement striving toward the end goal.   Here are 5 steps that we have found helpful in decreasing the sodium in our school meals while maintaining palatability and growing student participation. 

#1.  Procurement - In the process of building menu cycles and going out to bid for products, be sure to watch the nutrition labels on items such as hamburger/sandwich rolls, breads, cheese, prepared entree items such as chicken patties & chicken nuggets, soups, etc.  Write bid specifications that request lower sodium options.  Shop around for brands and if purchasing locally, work with the manufacturer to lower sodium.  In our district, we were purchasing a locally prepared fresh salsa... but the sodium was too high for us to use the product on a regular basis.   By cultivating our relationship & connecting with the company, we were able to have them decrease the amount of sodium in their salsa so that we could continue to menu it regularly in our school nutrition program.

#2. Scratch Cooking - Many processed foods have sodium added during manufacturing, therefore, transitioning to scratch cooking gives you the control over the amount of sodium in foods that you cook and serve.  Explore new recipes, especially recipes developed for schools since HHFK 2010.  Two great resources that we love are The New School Cuisine Cookbook from the creative folks at Vermont Feed.  This is a free resource and it is packed with delicious recipes developed for schools! You can download the book here:   Another great resource for recipes is Team Nutrition's Recipes for Healthy Kids Cookbook for Schools which you can find here:

As you move to scratch cooking, or if you are already scratch cooking, but your recipes need a salt reduction, gradually cut back the added salt.  Try cutting the added salt by 1/4 or 1/2 while increasing other seasonings, herbs & spices.  Be sure to watch those nutrition labels on your ingredients, too!  Sodium tends to lurk in unexpected places!  Sauces, dressings, marinades - all tend to be loaded with sodium, so opt for low sodium versions or make your own!

#3. Seasoning Blends - We have found that by using salt free seasoning blends, we are able to enhance the flavors of our food without adding additional salt.  Seasoning blends can be added in place of salt in the cooking process and/or can be added on the serving line to liven up the flavors.  We have a chart that our team uses to help them season foods appropriately.
Source: Creating Culinary Strategies;  Culinary Nutrition Associates
Catharine Powers, MS, RDN, LD
Seasoning blends, as well as herbs & spices can be part of a flavor station as well, giving students the ability to spice it up all on their own!  Be sure that the seasonings that you are putting at the flavor station are sodium free or low sodium!   Here is a fantastic resource with lots of ideas, from the School Nutrition Association:

Hot pepper flakes, Sriracha sauce, Lemon Pepper are some real favorites, especially with teenagers.  Even the seasoning blends from the resource posted about are great to put into shaker jars for seasoning food at the point of service!

A photo from Whole Spice, my favorite spice shop
in Napa Valley

#4 - Switching from Canned Vegetables to Fresh & Frozen Vegetables - This is really one of the easiest ways to lower the sodium in meals, while at the same time increasing acceptability and consumption!   Salad Bars packed with fresh fruits and vegetables allow students the opportunity to crunch their way through healthy choices that they will love!  As we have moved to offering more fresh vegetables, we have seen students taking ... and eating more vegetables than ever!  In addition to offering raw veggies on salad bars or on garden bars, also consider roasting vegetables by tossing them in a small amount of olive oil and adding one of the seasoning blends from our chart!  We recently served roasted asparagus and the kids went crazy for it, piling their trays with it & digging in! 
Roasted Asparagus Filling up a Middle School Student's Tray

#5 - Involve Your Customers  -   Throughout the change process, it is essential to involve your customers - the students! We have worked to educate the students - in the classroom and in the cafeteria.    From school gardens to in-class cooking & nutrition education to utilizing the cafeteria as a classroom, teaching kids about healthy food is a cornerstone of our school nutrition program!  Kids love being involved - in growing food, in preparing food, in sampling food and in naming new recipes!   When we switched from using canned baked beans in our school nutrition program to making them from scratch, our chef sampled the recipe in the classroom with students, allowed them to try them... and eventually letting them name the new recipe!  Our school-made baked beans became "Chef Sam's Better Bacon Baked Beans"... and it is not uncommon to hear students exclaim that they don't like "regular" baked beans... but they really LOVE Chef Sam's Better Bacon Baked Beans.  The process of involving the students in the process of developing the recipe and taste testing it and naming it gave them buy in.   My friend Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, of School Meals that Rock and President of Nutrition for the Future, makes a point to tell audiences that food is not nutrition if it gets dumped in a trash can... but if you involve students by giving them opportunities to Grow It, Cook It, Taste It - they will embrace new menu items and they will be more open to tasting (and liking!) formerly unfamiliar foods and flavors.

One final hint:  If you are a Facebook user, make it a priority to join the Facebook Group "Tips for School Meals that Rock".   This group is a peer to peer sharing group that is an incredible resource for information, ideas and "how-to" strategies from school nutrition colleagues from across the country!  Every day it is packed with fresh inspiration, recipes, questions  & support that will definitely help you kick out the salt, increase participation and conquer other day to day challenges that we face as school nutrition pros!  

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Ideas swim around in my head a lot. They kind of lurk there, roll around and get bigger and bigger, until I finally just have to act on them. Or - they get discarded or go to simmer on the back burner.
That's sort of the case this week. I've had this idea that I wanted to share, but, seriously no actual time to share it... and it somehow just wasn't coming together. And then, in my mail box is my February copy of SNA Magazine. The "Oh The Places You Will Go" cover & headline, captured my eye... and my attention. I have to be honest.... and many of you reading this will know what I am talking about... I didn't have time to read the article associated with the cover photo, so I stuffed it in my bag for some quality reading on my way to #LAC18 later this week. So *disclaimer here* - I really have no idea what the article is really about... but the picture goes SO WELL with want I've been wanting to write about.
Earlier this fall, at the Northeast Regional Leadership Conference, I was inspired to hear the leadership story of several School Nutrition professionals from the New England area. I was struck by the impact of these personal stories and I really wanted to bring "Leadership Journey" stories back to my own state association, the Maine School Nutrition Association. I really was inspired by hearing about the career path that led to working in School Nutrition or why they got involved in their state association. The real stories that maybe you don't always learn sitting across from someone in a meeting or conference.
I decided to start off our next Maine School Nutrition Association meeting with part of my own leadership story.... which I like to think of as "The Power of Yes". I have worked in School Nutrition for over 20 years, but it wasn't until about 5 years ago that I began embracing "The Power of Yes". I like to say that my "NO" force field must have been up pretty high, because no one even asked me if I wanted to get involved in our state association, and to be honest... it for some reason never occurred to me. I suppose I was too busy to notice: busy with one district, then 2 districts, then a 3rd small one got added on... busy with life, family... you know what it's like. But then... about 5 years ago... a friend reached out - burst through my NO force field - and asked. Would you consider running for president of Maine School Nutrition Association? Now to be honest, by this time I was sitting on the education committee of our board and was helping to plan conferences. But this was different. I don't even know why, but I was inspired to do it. Many friends encouraged me. My husband did not. "Why would you want to add more to your plate?" he asked. And I really didn't have a clear answer for that... except that I really had developed some vision - ideas - of what I thought could happen in Maine SNA, ideas that I thought needed sharing about how we were serving school meals in my district. Just those ideas... the ones that swim around in my head. And now, there was a crack in the NO force field.
The crack in the NO force field led me to start thinking about YES instead. And I made a conscious decision to start saying YES to opportunities that presented themselves, instead of automatically saying NO, to see where it would take me. So, I said YES when asked if I wanted to run for president of Maine SNA. Then, YES to being a lead mentor for the Institute of Child Nutrition and YES to presenting sessions at local, regional and national conferences. And I can honestly say it has been an incredible experience, making my School Nutrition experience so much richer, so much more enjoyable! I've met and collaborated with people from across the country, presented at conferences in places I've never been before. I've stretched and I've grown... and I've loved the experience. Has it always been easy and comfortable? No way! But the experiences have made me more well rounded, more knowledgeable, and I've expanded my horizons.
Change is good! Isn't that what we are always telling our staff and the people that we work with? We expect that they will say YES instead of NO when we present them with an idea or a change or a new way of doing things. And so I challenge you to start considering saying YES ... because you never know where it will take you!

Monday, September 4, 2017

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Chef Sam & I have been fortunate enough the past few years to have had the opportunity to travel around the country, sharing our School Nutrition Program's success strategies.  Hitting the road to share our story often inspires us to do some soul searching & re-evaluating where we have been and how we have gotten where we are now.  Over the past 5 years, participation in our school breakfast and lunch program has grown by double digit percentages.   More students are eating school breakfast and lunch than ever before.   Our  participation has increased,  we are serving more  whole food, more locally grown foods, more recipes prepared onsite and community support for our school nutrition program is growing.

We are often asked now we have managed to accomplish this... and honestly, it's not one single thing that has lead to our success, but a whole bunch of strategies that we have implemented... and that we continue to implement... that have really changed School Nutrition in our district, RSU #14 in Maine.   It all started with vision.  5 years ago, we were fortunate enough to have a visioning meeting, funded through a grant we had received.   We invited community members, members of our administrative team, school nutrition staff, school staff and school committee members.  Through this visioning meeting we established our vision and our goals for the way forward.

Now, I'm not saying that you need to have a fancy visioning meeting to establish your mission and vision, though for us, it was very helpful.  It is essential, however,  to sit down with key staff members and map out your mission and vision for the future.  A mission & vision can serve as your roadmap and guide as you make decisions that will effect your department.   One key decision that was made at our visioning meeting was a decision to consider adding a chef to our school nutrition team.   We did not rush right out & hire a chef after this meeting.... but when presented with the opportunity to replace a key, district-wide staff person, we utilized the opportunity to fill that position with a chef who could work district-wide with our team.

Another key strategy that came out of our visioning meeting was to increase our focus on local food, farm to school and school gardens in our School Nutrition Program.  Increasing our offerings of local foods - locally grown veggies, as well as locally raised meat - has really helped us to bring the freshest food possible to our customers - the students in RSU#14.

These changes - hiring a chef & focusing on locally grown & locally produced foods - didn't happen immediately after our visioning meeting, nor, once implemented, did they immediately lead to increased participation.  Of course, we needed a way to "get the word out"... a way to inform our customers that our program was changing and we were offering fresher, more delicious food!  Enter social media....!  As our school nutrition program was changing and so many exciting things were happening, we decided to start a Facebook Page for our School Nutrition Program as a way to document the changes and communicate with the public.  The rationale was fairly simple...  I was using Facebook personally and I knew that so many other parents, moms especially, were using Facebook daily, and often from their mobile devices.  What better way to communicate with our community and show them pictures of what was happening in our kitchens than by using a social media platform that they were already using daily!  It was easy, it was accessible, it was free...  so we started our Facebook page.  Gradually, we also started Instagram & Twitter pages and we continue to use these social media platforms and grow our audience.

Our marketing strategies don't stop at utilizing social media.  We also strongly believe in offering fun,
Frozen Fun Friday Breakfast
theme based menus for breakfast and lunch, especially at the youngest grades, as a way of making school meals fun and gaining new customers.  Our monthly Fun Friday Breakfasts at our elementary schools have helped grow our breakfast participation from less than 10% district wide to a regular average daily participation at breakfast of 30% or more.  Our fun themes might be a Dr. Suess theme, a menu based on the popular Frozen movie or even a Tropical Luau theme.   Creative menu naming, student chosen recipes, fun decorations, staff support.... all are essential ingredients to a successful menu promotion.

The  most important strategy that we have is building up & investing in our  amazing team.  I mean these people are real super heroes - they are so innovative & we are in awe of their dedication to feeding healthy food to the students in our district.   Beginning in 2012, we started utilizing culinary boot camps for departmental training.  Those trainings continue every summer, and Chef Sam offers "mini" trainings in each kitchen throughout the school year.   Chef Sam is quick to jump in & support our staff if they are struggling to prepare a new menu item, and this support has enabled our gradual move from a freezer to oven operation to one that now is approximately 85% scratch cooking!

Honestly.... these changes did not happen overnight.  Anyone who has heard me speak about this will know that I am a firm believer in the "baby-steps" approach to change.  We did not switch to scratch cooking all at once, but recipe by recipe - very slowly adding recipes as we became proficient.  There is no magic wand ... and it takes a lot of hard work, dedication and trial and error.  We test recipes at our smallest school, working out the kinks, gaining staff & student feedback, adjusting as necessary. Only then will a recipe or menu item be rolled out on a larger scale.

From our visioning meeting way back in 2012 to back-to-school in 2017...  it is all about hard work, dedication and team work!  It will not happen overnight, and it may not happen in a year...  we are 5 years down the road, and we've made so many changes!  Who knows where the next five years will take us!   Our fantastic team believes that healthy food fuels hungry minds and we are dedicated to our vision.  Teamwork is what it takes to make the dream work.
Very Veggie Culinary Boot Camp
with Chef Sam & School Nutrition Staff from RSU#14

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Professional Standards Training - The Road to a Successful School Year

Another school year has begun!   Menus have been planned, open positions have been filled, equipment serviced, food is ordered.... all we need is our customers!  It is hard to believe that summer is coming to an end.

It seems that I have spent my entire summer thinking about training.  The first part of my summer was focused on getting ready to attend the School Nutrition Association's Annual National Conference (ANC) in Atlanta, GA.  The second half of my summer was spent planning and preparing for Maine School Nutrition Association's Annual Conference, as well as training sessions for our own staff as we prepare for the school year.  All of this training - the planning, the organizing, the collaborating, the teaching, as well as sitting in  education sessions myself, has given me a lot of time to think about training and professional standards and to consider the requirements and how to make the most of them.  

Boosting your School Nutrition Brand Pre-Con Session @ #ANC17
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
session at #ANC17
Even though I have been working in School Nutrition for 20 years, this year's ANC in Atlanta was only my 5th time attending SNA's Annual National Conference.  I have attending ANC the past 5 years - Kansas City, Boston, Salt Lake City &  San Antonio and this year, Atlanta.  The past two years at ANC have been different for me, because I was involved, not only as an attendee, but also as a presenter.  As a presenter, I was pushing my own limits and stepping out of my comfort zone... co-leading Pre Conference sessions, as well as teaching education sessions.  Not only was I stretching my limits by being a presenter, but I also made a conscious decision to connect & network with other school nutrition professionals from around the  country... not just from my own "neck of the woods".

Spending so much time thinking about & attending trainings has let me to several conclusions about staff training & professional standards... and the strategies for making the most out of the trainings you & your staff attend:

1.  The Exponential Effect of training with professionals from many different districts/areas.  

    I am certain that many School Nutrition Directors opt to train their staff in house, which is likely the most economical means for meeting the Professional Standard training requirements.   However, when school nutrition professionals gather together from different areas for training, the diversity increases the learning exponentially!  Staff gain new insight, ideas & energy from other school nutrition superstars from neighboring districts, from neighboring states, from across the country!  It is so powerful to share with other school nutrition professionals - kitchen staff, cooks, managers & directors - from all across the state, or all across the country to learn that our challenges are so similar and our solutions are so varied!  In this environment, real change and progress happens!    It is well worth it to plan room in your budget to send your staff to a state school nutrition conference, or even a national conference.  The investment in your staff will lead to a more energized & engaged team.

2.  Hands on Training engages staff.  

Confucius said   " I hear and I forget.  I see and I remember.  I do and I understand".   Are you that kind of learner?  The kind of person who actually has to try something out & do it to actually master the task?  I sure am!  Let's face it - school nutrition employees are not accustomed to sitting in a classroom environment & just listening!  Our days are spent running, cooking, serving & cleaning.  Hands on trainings, such as culinary boot camps are much more engaging because staff have the opportunity to learn and practice  new skills. 
Culinary Training in RSU #14

At our Maine School Nutrition Association conferences and at our trainings in our district, hands on trainings are often the trainings that receive the best feedback and highest ratings.  Our most recent staff training day included a "Very Veggie" Culinary Boot Camp, where our team divided up into 7 groups, with each group preparing 3 recipes from a particular vegetable.  We had the Corn Team, the Zucchini Team, the Carrot Team, the Cauliflower Team, the Broccoli Team, the Green Bean Team and the Squash Team!  Each team received training on knife skills & the necessary cooking methods, and at the end, we feasted on 21 different vegetable recipes!

Lots of these recipes will make an appearance this school year, either on a Try It Tuesday or as part of our regular menu.  And now, our staff is ready to go, recipes in hand!  They've made the recipes & sampled them.  Now they are ready to serve them to our customers, the students!

3.  Never Stop Learning, Never Stop Training!

The professional standard training requirements for staff development have given school nutrition pros an excellent opportunity to build themselves up professionally.  Choose trainings strategically - learn new skills!  Stretch & Grow!  When you... or your team... stop stretching and growing, chances are good that your business will also stop growing.  

If you are just starting the school year, and you and/or your staff still need some or all of their professional standard training hours, consider attending a state-wide or national conference where the diverse learning and connections can have a lasting impact.  Consider attending a training that includes hands on learning, such as a culinary boot camp, a knife skills training or a training on alternative seasoning profiles to decrease the sodium in school meals!   If your plan is to train staff in house, be sure to mix it up so that employees make new connections and learn from their peers from other schools within district!  New connections will be made and sharing sharing of best practices, as well as challenges, will happen... and that is were the road to success begins!

Enjoy your school year!  I hope you will utilize Professional Standard training requirements to engage your team and get them excited about school meals, because if your team is excited about school meals, the students will get excited about school meals!  #HealthyFoodFuelsHungryMinds!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Eating Through the Alphabet for National Nutrition Month

Alright, I confess.  I am a bit of a "school foodie-geek". I mean, it's a good thing, right?  Considering that it's my job to ensure that the 3000+ kids in the school district where I work are fed school meals that are delicious AND nutritious...

Just about a week ago, I was on vacation in Florida.  The sun was shining, the birds were singing, everything was green and lush.
 It was a school break week for us, and it was so great to "get out of dodge" after being slammed with over 50 inches of snow in just 10 days.  I have to admit, I didn't want to come home.  I didn't want to go back to work.  Coming home to several feet of snow on the ground was hard.... going back to work seemed even harder.  Not that I don't love my job!  I LOVE my job and I'm incredibly passionate about feeding children.  Still... the winter doldrums had set in.   Suddenly though, I remembered that March was just around the corner.  Not only does March bring the promise of spring (even though the wind chill is currently 20 below as I type this), but our biggest school nutrition promotion of the year happens in March, and it lasts the entire month.  I had something to look forward to!

For years now, we celebrate National Nutrition Month by "Eating Our Way through the Alphabet". The inspiration for our "Eat Your Way through the Alphabet" came from a book by Lois Ehlers that I liked to read to my daughter when she was little.
This beautifully illustrated book lists fruits & vegetables, A - Z, and I was inspired to plan a month on our school menus where we highlighted an A - Z array of fruits and veggies as a way to expose kids to a wide variety of healthy foods.  The month of March seemed to be the most appropriate month for this month long promotion, as March is also National Nutrition Month.  

Coming back from my Florida vacation, I didn't have much time to wallow in my post-vacation pity party.  I had a month of fun fruits & veggies to plan, procure and promote!  Starting on March 1, our menu featured Arugula, Asparagus, Apples and Applesauce.    

By March 2, we were not only Eating Our Way through the Alphabet, but we were also celebrating Read Across America Day, and Dr. Seuss's Birthday.  Our B menu featured Truffula Trees Broccoli, Bar-ba-loots Baked Beans, Birthday Blueberry Parfaits and Bananas.


Our A-Z fruits & veggies are promoted on the menu, on our digital signage, on posters, as well as through our social media channels - Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  It may take kids a few days to catch on, but by the second week, they are all beginning to wonder... what will the E fruit or vegetable be? (Edamame) How about F? (Fear Factor Taste Test: Fresh Fennel) .  Throughout the month, kids will have an opportunity to sample some new foods such as jicama, kale, napa cabbage, quinoa, and zucchini, as well as some old favorites, such as grapes, strawberries and sweet potatoes. We know we've got a winner of an idea when parents stand up at school board meetings, thanking us for introducing their kids to a new food.  Often, the students go home talking about what they had at lunch, and then, because the kids have already eaten the food, parents feel more comfortable purchasing & serving that food at home.

Recently someone asked me what our School Nutrition Program is all about.... what 3 things encapsulated our mission.  I replied that we weigh everything by these 3 statements: 

1. We want to feed students delicious & nutritious food so that they are healthy & ready to learn.

2. We want the students to be excited and engaged in eating healthy, delicious food.

3. We want to inspire children and their families to eat healthy, nutritious food at school AND at home.

Reflecting back on my "3 statements", I realized that this was why our "Eat Your Way through the Alphabet" promotion is our most successful promotion of the school year.  With this month long event, we are feeding kids healthy & delicious food.  We are getting them excited about trying new foods, by offering them on the menu, throughout the month, in a fun environment.   Finally, we are inspiring families to try new foods at home, by exposing children to new foods in the cafeteria environment and by posting recipes on our menus and online.  

We are heading into our second week of "Eat Your Way through the Alphabet", and I'm excited!  Edamame, Fennel, Grapes, Hummus & Honey Dew...  It's a great way to focus on nutrition throughout National Nutrition Month.  Last week, at our afternoon cooking club (not part of our Eat Your Way through the Alphabet promotion),  Chef Sam brought out some star fruit that the kids were going to be preparing.  One little boy commented, "Is that Star Fruit?  I have always wanted to taste Star Fruit, but never had the chance!"  
Well, Star Fruit has a new fan! He gave the fruit a thumbs up!  I wonder, by the end of March, how many other new fruits & vegetables he will give a thumbs up to?  We believe that Healthy Food Fuels Hungry Minds, and that we are Feeding the Future.  Happy National Nutrition Month!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

This is not your father's (or your mother's) school lunch...

Yesterday morning, I was listening to the news, and the meteorologist was talking about a recent visit to a local school to talk & teach about all things weather related.  As Mr. Weather Dude bantered with the news anchors about the event, he commented on how amazing the school smelled because in the cafeteria, they were baking apple crisp for the school lunch menu.  This led to a conversation about school meals, past & present.  Finally, Mr. Weather Dude commented: "Kids today have it made!".   Quickly, I tweeted to Mr. Weather Dude, thanking him for his inadvertent shout out to school meals.  He's right!  When it comes to school meals, kids today do have it made!

I wonder though... how many people were listening... and how many people really got what he was talking about.

We've been brainstorming about this a lot lately.   School meals do not look... or taste... like they did in the past: School meals have changed DRAMATICALLY over the past 10, 20, 30, 40 years.  But, when parents consider whether to send a lunch with their child or whether their child will get school lunch, the parent's frame of reference for school lunch is often what the parent experienced for school lunch when they were in school.  Or how they have seen school lunch portrayed on television or in the media.

If you were eating school meals back in the 60's, school meals at your school might have looked a little like this:

school lunch in 1966
photo credit Bon Appetit Magazine

or in the 70's/early 80's, it may have looked a little more like this:

If parent's idea of school lunch has been framed by the media - tv & movies... or even worse, viral pictures that they may have been posted on social media, their idea of school meals may look more like this:

These photos were widely distributed over social media as "examples" of how terrible school lunches had become over the years.  Whether these photos were true examples or not, we may never know.  But, here is my point:  School Meals shouldn't be judges by past experience.  And here's why:  School Meals have changed drastically over the past 5 or 10 years.  Initiatives such as Farm to School, Chefs Move to School and the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 have made a huge impact on the freshness and quality of the meals.  So, when considering school meals, visit your school's cafeteria!  Ask if you can eat a school meal with your child, or visit the school nutrition program's website or Facebook page. I bet you will be pleasantly surprised by what you find.  Here are some photos of school meals from our own district:

Quesadilla lunch in RSU #14
Panini & Vegetable Quinoa Soup
Chicken Pot Pie with Whole Grain Biscuits

These are just a few examples  from our district, but for more, head on over to our Facebook Page at Windham Raymond School Nutrition Program.   

Its not just us though!  Across the country, schools are stepping up to the plate, serving fresh, delicious, restaurant quality food that meets the USDA guidelines.  Here are a couple more examples from York Schools in southern Maine.  
Delicious School Meals in York, Maine

School Meals that Rock on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter, is a great place to check out what is happening in school cafeterias across the country, and if you are a school nutrition professional, it is also a fantastic place to get inspired!  

There is one other thing about school meals that does not get talked about very often.   Frequently, the lunches that students bring from home (brown bag lunches) are nowhere near as nutritionally complete as a school lunch provided by the school cafeteria.   A study by Tufts University, and published online in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that only 11% of lunches from home included a vegetable, only 17% contained a dairy product, and while many student had water packed for their beverage, a significant number had a sugar sweetened beverage packed for the drink.  It is not uncommon for us to see a child in the cafeteria with a package of some sort of crackers and a drink as his or her entlunch.    

School lunches provide BOTH fruit & vegetable choices, as well as protein, whole grains and milk. They are power packed with nutritious foods and a great value every single day!

I urge you to check out your school's school nutrition program.  Perhaps they have an online presence on social media, or a website you can visit.  Perhaps you can stop by for lunch with your child, though I recommend calling first so that the cafeteria is sure to have enough food.  No matter what you do... it's time to give school meals a second look!  You'll be happy that you did!    Check out this great video, made by the School Nutrition Association: