10 Ways School Lunch Haters Can Get Off Their Soapboxes and Support #RealSchoolFood

By Dayle Hayes, MS, RD

To all the mommy bloggers, food celebrities, academic researchers, restaurant chains and media channels who want to blame School Lunch for the ills of the US food system (while promoting their own products, endorsements and programs), I’ve had it. Trying to refute your inaccurate claims, staged photos, out-date sound bites  and negative descriptions is a waste of precious time we could be working together to support #RealSchoolFood for real hungry kids all across America. Really want to improve school meals? Here are 10 effective ways to support the hard-working people who are reshaping local and national food systems, teaching kids about where food comes from, and feeding millions of children their best meals of the day – every day in thousands of schools across our country.

#1: Please get some real photos of #RealSchoolFood. Your staged, stock and decades-old examples do a terrible disservice to the dedicated chefs and cooks who offer gorgeous cafeteria lines, produce bars and grab-n-go options to students every day. Need help finding photos? We’ve got your back with thousands of photos on Facebook and Pinterest (some with recipes like this Roasted Edamame SaladTray Talk also features #RealSchoolFood from hundreds of districts.

Eating their way through the alphabet for National Nutrition Month, Windham Raymond School District (RSU#14) in Maine, served Roasted Edamame Salad (adapted from an Alton Brown Recipe).

Eating through the alphabet for National Nutrition Month, Windham Raymond School District (RSU#14) in Maine, served Roasted Edamame Salad (adapted from an Alton Brown Recipe).

#2: Please move on from ‘ketchup is a vegetable.’ Seriously people, check your facts. This was a stupid proposal in 1981 which never made it into a regulation. Before you complain, learn the details of the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act of 2010. There are specific requirements for five different vegetable sub-groups, including Red-Orange.

Sautéed and Steamed Georgia-Grown Green Beans and Tomatoes, Eat Healthy Eat Local Eat at Carrollton City Schools, Carrollton, Georgia·

Sautéed and Steamed Georgia-Grown Green Beans and Tomatoes, Eat Healthy Eat Local Eat at Carrollton City Schools, Carrollton, Georgia·

#3: Please read the research comparing school lunch to lunches brought from home. Studies from Baylor (TX), Tufts (MA) and Virginia Tech (VA) confirm that lunches brought from home rarely meet the tough nutrition standards now now required in all USDA school meals programs. Many contained sugary drinks that cannot be sold in schools.

A Tufts study published Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics showed lunches brought from home had lots of packaged food and sugary drinks

A Tufts study published Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics showed lunches brought from home had lots of packaged food and sugary drinks

#4: Please dig deeper into food waste in schools. Kids throw away perfectly picked organic oranges and bento box baby bananas with cute notes written on them – just like they throw away school lunch items. Two of the biggest solutions to food waste in cafeterias work for school lunches and lunches brought from home: Recess Before Lunch and Longer Lunch Periods

#5: Please recognize that school nutrition professionals frequently do not have needed administrative support. School nutrition heroes have a tough balancing act with  complex government regulations, limited budgets and limited input into school schedules that affect recess options and the length of lunch periods. Like you, they care deeply about feeding children well – and are trying to do the best they can with what they have. Maybe you can work together on a grant for a salad bar or school garden.

Poudre School District, Fort Collins. Colorado, offers daily produce bars with extensive choices.

Poudre School District, Fort Collins. Colorado, offers daily produce bars with extensive choices.

#6: Please talk WITH rather than AT school nutrition directors. Arrange a friendly meeting with your local nutrition director. Find out about their everyday challenges and what changes they would make if they could – maybe new equipment or more local foods. Find out how you can work together to do what’s best for kids. If you look for common ground, you are likely to find it. Believe every school should have a school garden? Get out there and help a school grow one.

Colonial School District, New Castle, Delaware, gets middle students excited about planting and growing vegetables.

Colonial School District, New Castle, Delaware, gets middle students excited about planting and growing vegetables.

#7: Please be realistic because nutrition perfection is just not possible on $1.50-1.75 per meal. That’s how much the average school district has to spend directly on food. While meal prices and USDA reimbursement rates provide more money, that also goes to pay for labor, equipment and overhead costs. If you want all organic, GMO-free, clean-label, local, scratch-cooked meals, you are going to have to help schools lobby local, state and federal decisions makers to provide more money for school meals. 2015 is a critical year for child nutrition and childhood food insecurity. This year Congress will reauthorize funding for the critical local programs that support healthy children, schools and communities, including School Breakfast Programs, National School Lunch Programs, WIC Programs and Farm to School Programs. 2015 is a time to advocate for fresh, local, delicious #RealSchoolFood rather than pointing fingers and telling families “avoid school lunch like the plague.”

Oakland Unified School District, Nutrition Services participates in CALIFORNIA THURSDAYS™ Day, along with many of the state's largest districts. So many delicious reasons to SMILE about ‪#‎SchoolMeals‬ in OUSD!

Oakland Unified School District, Nutrition Services participates in CALIFORNIA THURSDAYS™ along with many of the state’s largest districts.

#8: Please eat a #RealSchoolFood lunch. If you need a recommendation for a school cafeteria near you, send me an email at SchoolMealsThatRock@gmail.com.

Trish McDonald from Sky Oaks Elementary School (Minnesota District 191) sent this, saying that their kitchen "makes the BEST Vegetarian salads!"

Trish McDonald, Sky Oaks Elementary School (Minnesota District 191) says they “makes the BEST Vegetarian salads!”

#9: Please consider the consequences of your criticisms. Be respectful and ditch blanket descriptions of school food like “hideous piles of indistinguishable vegetables” and “avoid like the plague.” When you use negative and judgmental language, it makes parents feel badly about letting their children eat at school, even if they can’t afford to pack a meal from home. It also makes dedicated school nutrition heroes feel like just giving up.

The are no hideous piles of veggie in Reynolds School District, Portland, Oregon. There are beautiful cups of eye-appealing produce for students to grab.

There are no ‘hideous piles’ of veggies in Reynolds School District, Portland, Oregon. There are beautiful cups of eye-appealing produce for students to grab.

#10: Please be transparent about the companies who sponsor your post or blog or program. If your blog ends with photos of branded food products and lunch boxes, please indicate if they are sponsors or advertisers. I do consulting work for a variety of agricultural groups and a few companies, which are all disclosed below. Not a single one of them supported this post or provided input in any way.

  • Board Member/Advisory Panel
    • American Association of School Administrators (AASA) Breakfast Council
    • Kellogg’s Breakfast Council
  • Consultant
    • US Department of Agriculture and Team Nutrition Program
    • Multiple state departments of education and agriculture
    • Idaho Barley Commission
    • Mushroom Council
    • American Egg Board
    • CLIF bar
    • Chobani Yogurt
    • Bush Beans
  • Speakers Bureau
    • National Dairy Council and state/regional dairy councils
    • National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and state beef councils

School Breakfast Helps Students Make the Grade in 2015

By Dayle Hayes, MS, RD

While the buzz about National School Breakfast Week, is now behind us, the reasons to expand morning meals at school sit in America’s classrooms every day. Many children are still coming to school too hungry to focus on their teachers and too hungry to learn. In the 2015 Hunger in Our Schools Report from No Kid Hungry, 3 out of 4 public school teachers say that students regularly come to school hungry and 81% say this happens at least once a week. Educators report that hunger results in an inability to concentrate (88%); lack of energy or motivation (87%); poor academic performance (84%); and tiredness (82%).

Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC). McMinnville, Oregon

Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC). McMinnville, Oregon

Fortunately there are solutions. USDA’s School Breakfast Program, which is growing across the country, is the front line in helping all students be well-nourished and ready to learn. Every year the FRAC School Breakfast Scorecard lists participation rates for every state and the District of Columbia. On the plus side, the 2015 report (data from school year 2013-14) shows steady increases since 2003, with a total of 320,000 more low-income students eating a school breakfast each day compared to the prior year.

Sadly, significant school breakfast gaps still exist for low-income children in many states. This is a serious problem because breakfast improves students’ nutrition, health and their ability to focus and pay attention in class. Hungry children cannot listen to their teachers – because they are listening to their stomachs. The just-released Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee reinforces the importance of breakfast for young people noting that “[B]reakfast eating is associated with more favorable nutrient intakes compared to nutrient intakes from other meals or snacks. Adolescents and young adults are the least likely to eat breakfast, and targeted promotion efforts are needed to reach these groups. For children and adolescents, the school breakfast program is an important venue for promoting breakfast consumption and efforts are needed to increase student participation rates.”

As a mom and a child nutrition expert, my mantra is simple. Breakfast. Every Child. Every Day. Research clearly shows that breakfast helps everyone be ready to succeed – and you probably make certain that your family enjoys these benefits every morning. I believe we all must go beyond our own families and support breakfast in every school – even if our kids eat at home. Here’s what you can do to help:

While your child may be able to opt out of a school breakfast program, their friends and classmates may not have that luxury for a myriad of reasons. Breakfast is a simple, cost-effective way for high-performing schools to help every child be well nourished and ready to learn. That’s a strategy that I support as a mom, a Registered Dietitian (RD) and a taxpayer.

Apple-Maple French Toast, Windham-Raymond RSU #14, Maine

Maple Apple French Toast, Windham-Raymond RSU #14, Maine. Recipe from Vermont FEED, New School Cuisine Cookbook (http://www.vtfeed.org/materials/new-school-cuisine-cookbook)

This blog post originally appeared on the Midwest Dairy Makes Sense blog as School Breakfast Makes the Grade.

31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: Protein Recipes for Success

If you’d like a few new entrées for your 2015 menus, I have three resources that you should definitely check out. At school (and home), proteins are usually at the center of the tray or plate. With these on-trend recipes, you can please your customers and effectively manage your school food budget at the same time.

It has been my pleasure to work with the American Egg Board (AEB) over the past couple of years. The Incredible Edible Egg truly is a popular, versatile, cost-effective way to add protein to any school meal. In the Eggs in Schools White Paper, I discuss these top three reasons to incorporate eggs: (1) Popular egg dishes can help increase Average Daily Participation (ADP); (2) The affordability of eggs allows more menu flexibility; and (3) Eggs provide versatile vegetarian and gluten-free options.

With input from hundreds of school nutrition professionals and the creativity of Malissa Marsden, AEB now offers dozens Egg Recipes for breakfast, lunch and snacks. Complete preparation instructions, meal equivalencies and nutrition analysis are provided. You can shake things up with this fun salad or power up with a Protein Box Lunch K-8

EggThere is also plenty of protein power – along with layers of ethnic flavors – in the nutrient-rich school lunch beef recipes developed by The Beef Checkoff. To help schools include high-quality protein, like beef, on the menu, I was honored to work with team of culinary experts who developed five new beef ground recipes that can be easily incorporated into any school lunch menu. The recipes were tested by real school cooks in real kitchens with real students – and you can read their comments online.

While I like all five recipes, the Sweet Potato Beef Mash-up is my personal favorite with  southwest-seasoned ground beef and sweet potatoes served hash-style and topped with a mixture of plain yogurt and hot pepper sauce. It can be served in a whole wheat tortilla or in Romaine lettuce cups for gluten-free option.


The final protein resource comes from the sea – from another commodity board whose product is available as a USDA Food – the Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers. From the more familiar Fish Tacos to an innovative Alaska Pollock Po’Boy, there are some delicious looking recipes on this site. I especially like the fact that they include sauces and side dishes for each of the pollock entrees. Like the other commodity groups featured, the pollock producers offer success stories and wonderful recipes that meet the meal pattern guidelines. There’s nothing fishy here – just proven ways to help students enjoy the health benefits of seafood at a reasonable cost and they can help with merchandising too.



Honestly, there is no reason to keep serving the same recipes cycle after cycle – with all the recipes and resources available online, it’s easy to mix-up your menus and offer new, exciting dishes to your customers!

31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: Recipes from Commodity Boards

By Dayle Hayes, MS, RD

Just three more days to wrap up 31 Days of #RealSchoolFood – and I want to continue sharing school recipe resources. There’s no reason to spend time reinventing recipes that have already been developed. Your valuable time is much better spent making farm to school contacts, arranging culinary training for your staff or providing nutrition education to students.

Rather than starting from zero with a new menu item, find an existing recipe – and adapt it, if necessary, to fit the needs of your customers. Commodity boards – the marketing side of agricultural producer groups – are delicious sources of school recipes. They are eager to have schools incorporate their products into school meals – and offer lots of creative recipes to help you do that. The Mushroom Council has gone all out with a website devoted to Mushrooms in Schools, where they offer newsletters, success stories, complete menus and wonderful recipes. This Vegetable Flatbread offers a colorful combo of on-trend veggies and is perfect for Meatless Mondays.

Vegetable Flatbread

NOTE: Both Malissa Marsden, my webinar co-presenter, and I consult for The Mushroom Council. You can also find more mushroom inspiration on the School Meals That Rock Pinterest page on the Mushrooms in Schools board.

Speaking of olives, Malissa has also helped the California Olive Committee create some really outstanding recipes. Many of them, like this Southwestern Stuffed Baked Potato, are very cost-effective because they use multiple USDA Foods in one recipe. There are recipes for all grade levels and all taste buds. All the K-12 California Ripe Olive Recipes are designed to meet current meal pattern guidelines – and to please your most discerning customers!


I’ll cover some protein commodity groups, including beef, eggs and dairy, tomorrow. Here are two others that have outstanding resources for school nutrition professionals.

31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: Recipes from Your Colleagues

As 2014 comes to a close, we’re talking #RealSchoolFood recipes that you might want to incorporate in 2015. The overall goal is to offer you some great scratch recipes, saving you the time, money and hassle to creating your own recipes from scratch. Remember the recorded USDA webinar on Finding and Creating School Recipes for Success with USDA Foods (featuring Malissa Marsden and me) is available on YouTube. Several colleagues have suggested that this would make a great (and free) January in-service to share with your staff.

Another wonderful source of recipes is your friends and colleagues in the school food world. Most school nutrition professionals are more than willing to share recipes – just ask nicely and be sure to say thank you! Here are three examples of recipe sources from colleagues you can trust.

The Washington State Schools “Scratch Cooking” Recipe Book is packed with delicious contributions from school cooks across Washington. More than 20 districts contributed recipes to this September 2013 publication (all recipes meet new meal pattern guidelines). The book has lots of interesting main dishes, from basic Chicken Fajitas to Italian Baked Fish w/ Provencal Sauce, as well as grains, fruits and vegetables. 

WA ChildNutritionRecipeBook Cover

Provo School District in Provo, Utah, is an outstanding example of scratch cooking with locally sourced ingredients. They are also incredibly generous with sharing their food art on Facebook – and their recipes as well. In May 2014, they shared six recipes that featured local meat, poultry, veggies, fruits and even mushrooms! You can download them at Provo City School District Recipes with Local Food Items from the National Farm to School Network database (where you can also search for other recipes and resources).

I can personally recommend the Roasted Asparagus, which I once had the pleasure of both eating and serving this recipe to middle school students. Many of them asked how many spears they could have!



As a final treat, Windham Raymond School Nutrition Program, RSU #14 in Maine, has been kind enough to share their recipe for the Whole Grain Rolls served at their Thanksgiving meal in November. Here is what Director Jeanne Reilly wrote to go with these yummy photos: “Yesterday was such a great day, with so many of our students and staff taking part in our Thanksgiving Feast throughout our entire district. Our “homemade” school baked rolls were a huge hit and many have requested the recipe. Our rolls (unlike the original recipe) were whole grain and we substituted a portion of the white flour with100% whole grain white flour.” That is district Chef Samantha forming the rolls in the top left.

Thanksgiving Rolls in Windham-Raymond Schools, Maine

Thanksgiving Rolls in Windham-Raymond Schools, Maine

Here is a JPG of the recipe that Jeanne shared with me. If you cannot read it well enough in this format, send an email to SchoolMealsThatRock@gmail.com, I will send the recipe PDF to you. Thanks to Jeanne and all the other directors for being willing the share the goodness of from their kitchens!


31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: #MustHave Recipe Resources

There are many excellent resources for standardized school recipes – from USDA, NFSMI, state Team Nutrition Programs (ex., Michigan and Iowa), food companies (ex., Norpac Foods) and producer commodity groups (ex,. American Egg Board and The Mushroom Council). Remember, you do NOT have to reinvent the ‘wheel,’ you can always adapt recipes to fit your kitchen and your customers! In final six blogs in this series, I’m exploring a variety recipe sources for school meals. Today, I share two MUST-HAVES – from Oklahoma and Vermont.

The Oklahoma Farm to School Cookbook has a great name: Kidchen Expedition. It also has great recipes for serving locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables in schools. There are eight sections covering everything from Broccoli to Zucchini, along with a nice selection of dips and dressings. Two recipes are shown on this slide – more great names, Underground Candy (aka roasted root veggies) and Rainbow Salsa. The cookbook can be downloaded in large file – or section by section – and there are family-size recipes to send home with your students.


By now I hope that every school nutrition program has an electronic – or hard – copy of Vermont FEED’s New School Cuisine: Nutritious and Seasonal Recipes for School Cooks by School Cooks. This is a very impressive first-ever effort by public school cooks to write a hands-on cookbook for their peers. It is written for school cooks, by school cooks and includes totally kid-tested recipes, featuring local, seasonal ingredients and farm to school resources. I have met several of the cooks who tested the recipes – and I have seen the recipes being served at many schools. This gorgeous Vermont Maple Apple French Toast Bake had just come out of the oven at Goddard Elementary in Worcester, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, I did not get to stay for brunch for lunch.

Vermont Maple Apple French Toast Bake

Vermont Maple Apple
French Toast Bake

Every school needs a copy of New School Cuisine: Nutritious and Seasonal Recipes for School Cooks by School Cooks on their computer or book shelf – the photos alone make it worth your while! Get yours today!



31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: Success Starts with the Recipe

On December 4, 2014, I had the privilege and pleasure of presenting a USDA Foods webinar – Anatomy of Standardized Recipe: Finding and Creating School Recipes for Success with USDA Foods – with Malissa Marsden. The recording of the hour presentation is now available on YouTube. Malissa did a terrific job of laying the groundwork with the critical importance of standardized recipes.


Malissa then offered a precise, step-by-step analysis of HOW to create and adapted standardized recipes for school meals. I highly recommend listening to the webinar recording – because I cannot do her presentation just here.

I had a much easier job – talking about some resources for recipes that can be used as is or adapted to meet your needs. Sadly, I have learned that no everyone knows about the best SEARCHABLE source for USDA recipes, the What’s Cooking website. This site includes the USDA recipes available on the National Food Service Management (NFSMI) recipe database (which are only alphabetical by recipe name) PLUS some additional recipes from other sources. A couple of things to note when using the QUANTITY RECIPE side of this website (there are also family size recipes available).

  • Not all the recipes are standardized, but you can check a box to see only those that are (426).
  • You can also search by course of the meal.
  • You can create a ‘cookbook’ of the recipes you like. However, you cannot currently save it online. If you collect recipes, they will need to be printed.


There are many other wonderful sources of standardized recipes for schools. You do NOT have to reinvent the recipe ‘wheel,’ you can always adapt one to fit your kitchen and your customers! In the next several blogs, I’ll explore recipe sources for school meal components, here are two state-level recipe sources – from Michigan and Texas – that are worth checking out.

Michigan Team Nutrition has lots of wonderful recipes – both printed and as YouTube videos. I can personally vouch for these recipes created by Chef Dave Mac – I have tasted many of them while doing trainings across Michigan.


Education Services Center for Region 11 is also collecting and standardizing some delicious recipes. While their current recipe collection is small, I am sure that they will adding more quickly – thanks to Chef V and the other ‘Foodnatics’ there!


Check out these three sources of recipes – and let’s us know your favorite sources to share. We have five more days of recipes resources and we would love to include yours!