What goes into planning a school lunch menu?

chefbeccaHi, I'm Chef Rebecca. I am the chef for Metro school cafeterias.

Before I came to work for Metro Schools, I was a research and development chef for an international restaurant chain. I kept up with food trends, best restaurants and top chefs. All I knew about school lunch was mine had come in a brown bag packed by my Mom every morning (even through senior year! Yep, I was THAT kid!) and Michelle Obama was in the news almost daily campaigning for healthier school lunches.

Once I started my own personal journey to better my health, I realized I was part of the problem of the obesity epidemic, and that I wanted to work for someone with the same goals and values as my new healthy lifestyle.  So here I am: more than three months into my new job, working in school cafeterias everyday and finally feeling like I have a grasp on school lunch and all of the USDA regulations. There are a LOT of them. How do they fit with the meals served in our schools and the healthy menus I’m starting to plan for next year? Let me show you!

Although taste, flavor and appearance are important when putting together any menu, when developing a menu for School Nutrition I must consider everything below as well:

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 8.28.54 AM1. Daily food group requirements - Five components (Protein, Grains, Fruits, Vegetables, and Milk)

Children must take 3 components (one of which has to be a fruit or vegetable) to be considered a "USDA official" meal. I hope to be able to create a menu where kids want to take ALL five components!

2. Minimum daily and weekly grain and protein requirements - All grains must be at least 51% whole  grain.

Did you know anything we serve with breading (fish, chicken patties, nuggets) has to meet these requirements? That means even the breading is whole grain rich! Although those items are traditionally fried, we bake them. Baked and whole grain "fried" foods... sneaky, sneaky!

3. Guidelines for vegetable groups - Greens, Red/Orange, Legumes and Starchy Vegetables

Not only do I have to make sure the kids get enough vegetables, but now I need to go as far as to break it down to ½ cup of this color Monday, ¼ cup of that color Tuesday, etc! There is a lot of math involved!  Just eat the rainbows kids (and I’m not talking about Skittles!).

4. Weekly calorie limits and total saturated/transfat range limits - Cafeteria Moneyball

I’m the rookie around here, but I work with the best registered dietician who sees eye to eye with me. She loves my vision! We sit down regularly at her computer with a program called NutriKids that evaluates recipes and breaks down the nutritional information. It's amazing to watch the numbers change as we play with a recipe to meet all requirements.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 8.23.55 AM5. Availability/Volume - We served almost 235,000 MORE meals in the first 12 days of school… MIND BLOWN!!! 

You know whose mind is also blown? Our food vendors and distributors! When working in such a large school district, we have to make sure the food we want will be available in large quantities. Imagine going to a farm and saying "I'll take it all!"

6. Kitchen equipment - "What do you mean you don’t have a burner to make a scratch sauce on?!?"

I travel to a different school every day and every kitchen I have been to is a little bit different: the size, the people, the equipment - they all vary! When testing a recipe, I have to make sure each kitchen can execute it depending on all these variables.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 8.19.45 AM7. Space on the cafeteria serving line - How will it all fit? 

Although we are only required to offer the 5 components, we like to give the students several options within each component every day. That means serving two or more entrees (protein and grain), chef salads (pre packed as an entrée), two ore more hot vegetables, cold vegetables, two to three fruit options and four milk flavor options. That's a lot to fit on one serving line. As Tim Gunn would say, “Make it work!”

8. Cost - Making nutritious and delicious meals for just $1.18 per plate

That may seem like a small amount, but due to the volume of food we buy we are able to negotiate low prices. Next time you make dinner, I challenge you to try to make a well balanced, nutritious and delicious meal for that price! It’s really hard!

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 8.36.23 AM

All things considered, I am looking forward to the challenge of developing and planning next year’s menu. I am currently working in a different school every day getting feedback from cafeteria managers, principals, teachers and - most importantly - students. I will incorporate those changes into next year's menu.

Follow me on Instagram & Twitter @MNPSChefRebecca to see daily lunches, new items I’m working on, and healthy eating tips!