Expect the Unexpected: The School Chef

In “Expect the Unexpected,” published in the May 2016 issue of School Nutrition, author Kelsey Casselbury asked several school nutrition stakeholders to offer opinions, advice and tips on enticing kids to eat better-for-you foods. While some of the suggestions focused on menu and recipe development, Chef Sharon Schaefer, SNS, a former district-level school chef, shares a broader spectrum of ideas.  

When preparing school lunch trays, Schaefer relies on a “3-3-3” rule: “Every tray, every day, should have three different colors, three different textures and three different flavors,” she says. “This will help ensure that your great-looking food will be backed up with great taste.”

She’s an advocate of making your marketing count as much or more so than specific menu changes. “I’ve personally had success by marketing different fun and cleverly named items,” Schaefer recalls. “We’ve done different types of ‘chips’ and ‘fries,’ but also by using wording like ‘confetti,” meaning all different colors, such as confetti peppers—green, red, orange and yellow mixed together.” She warns, however, against going too far. “Kids don’t order items if they don’t understand what they are,” she notes.

Schaefer gleans inspiration from restaurants, national food trends and items that are in season, such as in autumn, when everything seems to be “pumpkin spice”-flavored. “I used that momentum and interest in the flavor to serve Pumpkin Spice Yogurt Parfaits,” mimicking the uber-popular Pumpkin Spice Lattes from Starbucks (and every other coffee shop in America!). “We even substituted the granola in our everyday parfaits for graham cracker crumbs, so it tasted more like a crust with the blended, flavored yogurt. It was a hit!”

Finally, Schaefer reminds K-12 operators not to be afraid of “stealing” ideas from other districts who are menuing successful, imaginative items. “The best part of school nutrition,” she says, “is that we are all on the same team, feeding children healthful meals. None of us hold secrets!”

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