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#MNPSVoices: Ryan Yarnell, Head Chef

MNPSVoices_050918_RyanYarnell Metro Nashville Public School’s new Head Chef, Ryan Yarnell, is the architect behind the balanced meals served in the districts’ school café's. Yarnell comes from a world of trendy Nashville restaurants in which he helped open the Nashville Sounds Stadium Bandbox restaurant as well as Pinewood Social, a restaurant and bowling concept near downtown. Now, his goal is mixing up healthy and fun foods for MNPS students.

“I loved working in restaurants but it did not have the same lasting effect as this job,” Yarnell said. “It may put a smile on a customer’s face temporarily but the students’ joy carries forward. We can see how it can change their day, their week or their school year.”

Yarnell does not treat his creations as a one-time meal but as a piece in the bigger picture of nutrition in schools. He hopes that by serving whole and healthy foods, students will gain healthy eating habits for life. With each menu item, he works with the MNPS Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) Jessica Thomas and follows national guidelines for school nutrition to create well-rounded meals.

“It’s no secret we are battling a lot of health concerns as a nation; and it starts with learning good food habits from a young age,” Yarnell said. “If we can teach our youth now, we can make a difference in the next generation’s health.”

MNPS’s Nutrition Department also keeps in mind the ethnic diversity of the district. Yarnell tries to create familiar food for all children while also introducing new flavors. He often sits with students at school cafés to learn about the sauces and flavors they cherish at home.

“When I hear that something I made reminds them of their family’s cooking, it tells me I’m doing something right,” Yarnell said. “I try to make comfort foods for every child in our schools.”

The feedback the Nutrition Department receives helps to influence and allows for adjustments in school menus with Yarnell and his team doing extensive testing to make sure meals are appealing to students. The most recent flavor tested was a Philly cheesesteak pretzel roll which became an unsurprising success. Another focus in MNPS kitchens is to lower the amount of sodium used in foods by crafting recipes that use natural flavorings like onions, garlic or other whole seasonings. School kitchens are no longer use canned or pre-prepared foods, but are replicating the prep work of restaurants. In the future, Yarnell hopes to create an internal YouTube channel for staff members to watch cooking videos to learn how to prepare the recipes.

During MNPS Wellness Week and throughout the year, Yarnell encourages families to try new healthy foods with their kids.

“Don’t be afraid to try something new with your child,” Yarnell said. “Studies have shown that on average it takes seven tries before their palate gets used the taste.”

For food inspiration and a peek into MNPS school lunches follow @mnpschefryan on Twitter and Instagram. Learn more about MNPS Wellness Week here.