EVERY DAY GOODNESS: Smart Photos of School Meals (Part 2)

Why are we spending so much time on school food photo tips? When people see a few yucky photos of school meals, they think that all school meals are bad. When they see bright, beautiful, colorful foods served in your outstanding programs, they begin to understand all school meals in a different way. Public opinion about school meals is literally in your hands. School Meals That Rock wants the world to see accurate, current, positive images of school nutrition.

That’s why we are sharing tips for better school food photos. Part 1 featured tips on tray color and background; this post offers three suggestions about the food itself.

Salad Bar section from Billerica, Massachusetts

Salad Bar section from Billerica, Massachusetts

Tip #4: GO WITH BRIGHT COLORS. There’s no need to always show a complete tray. Look throughout your kitchen and cafeteria for brilliant combinations of colors. This small section of a salad bar has a great mix of red and yellows. It demonstrates the variety of produce options available to student and is very appealing. Thanks to Dina Fordyce Wiroll, Nutrition Services Site Coordinator, Billerica Public Schools for taking it and sharing it. You can learn more about their program by following them at Billerica Schools Nutrition Services on Facebook.

Vegetables from the line in Timpview High School, Provo, Utah

Vegetables from the line in Timpview High School, Provo, Utah

Tip #5: SHOW CONTRASTING COLORS AND SHAPES. Whether on a line or on a tray, contrast is good. These fresh, local green beans look nice by themselves, but see how much more appealing they look in contrast to the steamed butternut squash. Thanks to Colleen Dietz for her amazing collection for school food photos from schools in Provo, Utah. She has done an outstanding job of encouraging staff throughout the district to document excellence in school nutrition. You see learn a lot by following Provo’s work on Facebook at ITS Meals at Provo School District.

Dramatic display of fruits and vegetables from Jackson-Madison County School System, Tennessee

Dramatic display of produce from Jackson-Madison County School System, Tennessee

Tip #6: SHOW LAYERS OF COLOR. Multiple shelves in a cafeteria line can be an impressive way to display food – and to encourage students to take and eat items. Layers also make dramatic photographs, especially when they are filled with bright colors. Susan Johnson, School Nutrition Director, from Jackson-Madison County School System in Tennessee, share some knock-out photos with us. This one is from Liberty Technology Magnet High School, where some of the vegetables are grown in a hydroponic greenhouse.

What’s the Real School Lunch News? 31+ Million American Children Get More Vegetables

What’s really sad about the recent article on the state of U.S. school lunch from the Fed Up campaign is that is so-five-years-ago. Using out-of-date statistics, misleading photos, and images that were not even from high schools, this campaign fails to expose the real truth about school lunch today – that it is awesome and kids are eating it up!

Personally, I’m fed-up with reports on school lunch that ignore the real revolution in cafeterias. Where have these school lunch critics been? Clearly not dining in the districts that are featuring produce from schools gardens – or doing farm-to-school, boat-to-school (in AK, OR and NH), and Montana’s recent beef-to-school campaign. What’s really happening in school lunch is that the nearly 32 million students who eat it daily are getting an incredible variety of often local, increasingly organic produce, lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy products. According to the savvy school nutrition directors who observe their teen customers closely, they are eating it all up!!

Here’s a taste of what’s really happening with teens and school lunch in five Western districts of all sizes and demographics. It’s our first-in-a-series tour from coast-to-coast showcasing School Meals That Rock – today, with a special focus on teens and veggies.

In suburban Lake Stevens, Washington, Schools, just west of the Seattle, Calavero Mid-High piloted a “Build Your Own Salad Lunch” last spring and they now serve 65+ a day. They are expanding this concept to all middle/high schools in October: Students order a custom salad built from lean diced meats, shredded cheeses or seeds for protein, croutons or whole wheat bread-sticks for grain, and a colorful selection of fresh veggies (often local) and dried fruits.

Veggie toppings for a "Build Your Own Salad Lunch"

Lake Stevens veggie toppings for a “Build Your Own Salad Lunch”

Mixed salad lunch in a bowl

Lake Stevens customized salad lunch in a bowl

Down I-5, in Eugene, Oregon, Bethel School District, has developed a very impressive Harvest-of-the-Month program. Willamette Valley apples, pears, melons, carrots, bok choy, greens and much more show up on Bethel menus, in sandwiches and throughout variety bars (at least nine different vegetable choices daily at all grade levels).

Variety bar - at least nine veggie available daily

Willamette High School variety bar with regular farm to school options

Bethel Nutrition Services Summer Meal Program Sandwich

Bethel Nutrition Services Summer Meal Program Sandwich

In the Solvang, California, Viking Café, Chef Bethany Markee leads a real school food revolution, where they offer a made-from-scratch hot lunch along with grab-n-go options (entrée salads, wrap sandwiches or vegetarian cold items). Thanks to a partnership with Santa Ynez Valley Fruit and Vegetable Rescue, the Viking Café is able to regularly serve fresh, organic produce and thanks to a new school herb garden, the seasonings will soon be very local as well.

Solvang Grab-n-Go Salads

Solvang Grab-n-Go Salads

Solvang produce bar often features "rescued" veggies

Solvang produce bar often features “rescued” veggies

Across the mountains in the Provo, Utah, Schools, Jenilee McComb, Director and Colleen Dietz, Assistant, have made a commitment to freshly prepared, locally sourced meals in this mid-size district just south of Salt Lake City. They proudly lists the farms and farmers who grow food for their kitchen, so that Provo students know where their food comes from – and taking a few extra seconds to make something look more appealing to the eye has made all the difference.

Provo Whole Wheat Spaghetti with Homemade Marinara

Provo Whole Wheat Spaghetti with Homemade Marinara

Provo Homemade Roast Pork and Mashed Potatoes

Provo Homemade Roast Pork and Mashed Potatoes

Up in Kalispell, Montana, Public Schools, another medium-sized district close to the Canadian border, Jennifer Montague agrees that presentation and freshness are the keys to getting teens to eat more fruits and vegetables. She believes that young people are discerning customers and they will choose fruits and vegetables if they look appealing and taste good on a regular basis.

Kalispell Hummus Grab-n-Go Salad

Kalispell Hummus Grab-n-Go Salad

Kalispell Rainbow Grab-n-Go Salads

Kalispell Rainbow Grab-n-Go Salads

I am all for getting teens – and even younger students – activated to improve school meals. That’s exactly what the Fuel Up to Play 60 and Alliance for a Healthy Generation programs have been doing for years – with great success. In fact, we have reached the tipping point in school nutrition – and it’s time to use photos like these to inspire lagging districts to make changes.

If you really want to do something, there is no need to use old data and misleading photos. Let’s spend our time showcasing what’s possible and support all school nutrition professionals in serving meals they way districts like Lake Stevens, Bethel, Solvang, Provo and Kalispell are already doing. Jennifer Montague said it best: “If you build it well, they will eat it.”

3 Secrets for Getting Kids to Make Smart Food Choices

[Thanks to Kern Halls of Ingenious Culinary Concepts for originally publishing this on his new blog.]

As school nutrition professionals, we are required to serve certain food items – and we want our customers to enjoy nutrient-rich, “good-for-them” meals and snacks.  While there is never any guarantee that every child is going to like every food (do you?!), there are some fundamental, “secret” strategies for helping children make smarter food choices at school. Here are three of my favorites:

1.    Presentation, presentation, presentation.

We all eat with our eyes – and our nose and ears – long before we ever put the food in our mouths. School-aged customers are looking for colorful, eye-appealing choices that smell wonderful – and maybe even “sizzle” in the skillet. A recent study with pre-teen children indicated that the young people preferred greater food diversity than adults. On average, they preferred seven different items on their plates and six different colors. This study is one of many from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab that indicate the importance of presentation to children, including on school lunch lines.

Want children to eat “what’s good for them”? Make sure that it looks, smells and sounds incredibly delicious!

From Kalispell, Montana, these rainbow salads would appeal to any student!!

From Kalispell, Montana, these rainbow salads would appeal to any student!!

2.    Taste, taste, taste.

This should go without saying: Taste reigns supreme in the food world. While you can get kids to take a bite or two of almost anything, you will not get them to repeat the experience or truly enjoy the food unless it tastes good. How do you get food to go from OK to WOW in terms of taste buds? The “secret” is culinary skills – planning, storing, preparing, seasoning and cooking to maximize flavor and texture. Culinary boot camps, guest chefs and chefs on staff have become popular for good reasons. They all help school meals move beyond their reputation for processed blandness to more complex, sophisticated and spicy foods that appeal to today’s consumers.

Want children to eat “what’s good for them”? Make sure your food tastes so wonderful that they want to come back for more tomorrow.

Denver (CO) Public Schools served Albondigas with zucchini, bell peppers, onions, potatoes, cilantro and carrots, as well as homemade turkey meatballs. Students at Schmitt Elementary raved about them on the playground and at other schools students asked for seconds!

Denver (CO) Public Schools served Albondigas with zucchini, bell peppers, onions, potatoes, cilantro and carrots, as well as homemade turkey meatballs. Students at Schmitt Elementary raved about them on the playground and at other schools students asked for seconds!

3.    Service with a smile.

Anyone who has every worked in any kind of foodservice with any age customers knows the value of a smile. In school cafeterias, the smiles of the school nutrition professionals directly translate into improved academic performance. That’s because S.M.I.L.E. stands for School Meals Improve Learning Environments. When children are well nourished, they are ready to succeed – better able to focus, concentrate and learn in the classroom. Good customer service is one of most effective ways to insure that children will enjoy whatever is served at school breakfast, lunch and snack – whether they know that it is good for them or not!!

Want children to eat “what’s good for them”? Remember to S.M.I.L.E. and invite your customer to enjoy the appealing, delicious food you have prepared. 

In Lake Stevens, Washington, their "Build a Rainbow" Salad Bar is served with many smiles.

In Lake Stevens, Washington, their “Build a Rainbow” Salad Bar is served with many smiles.