Partnering With Kids to Design Healthy School Lunch Menus

I’ve been consulting with public school lunch programs here in Maine for several years now. My goal is to help my clients improve the healthfulness of lunches served to the children by implementing scratch-cooked recipes that are appealing to children, cost-effective to make, and feasible for the programs to incorporate into their regular menu cycles.

kids cook

Anyone who’s spent any time with a child knows that the majority of them are skeptical of new foods and even more leery of healthy ones, so a big part of my approach is helping kids learn to trust us to make something enjoyable. By providing the children with the recipes we serve them and through class visits, lunch participation contests and cafeteria chats, I try to create a dialogue about food so that the kids feel invested in–rather than threatened by–the changes I’m introducing when I show up on campus.

Next week, I’m going to have the chance to take things a step further when I hold two assemblies for over 550 students in grades K-3. Besides its educational component, the event will generate excitement for my next visit to their school, when the food service staff and I will introduce a few new healthy and homemade recipes to their menu. We believe the anticipation of a special day helps mentally prepare the children for the challenge of trying something new.

I’ll be presenting the basics of food groups to the kids–proteins, carbohydrates, etc.–and I’ll explain how each one helps their bodies and minds in different ways and how they provide energy for different lengths of time. But what I’m most excited about is that at the end of the assembly the kids will have an opportunity to use their new knowledge to help us choose a menu for my guest chef visit.

The kids will be able to vote for a meal that they think will make them feel the best when they’re doing what they like to do. The goal is to help kids think critically about how the foods we eat make us feel, effect our energy levels and help us grow and develop. And because we will give the kids the ownership of the meal, they’ll remember how fun it was to have a choice among healthy menus we’ve crafted to appeal to them.

We want to ensure that the next time these children see the items on the menu or are offered another new dish featuring ingredients we discussed or served, they’ll have a positive context from which to make decisions about whether to give them a taste. The children benefit from early exposure to new healthy foods, as does the lunch program, whose success depends on winning over the world’s toughest food critics. And if we engage kids in the decision making process, we’re better able to sustain the momentum that special events like this create and nurture their trust in healthy foods and the people who prepare and serve them.