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Five Simple Tips to Get Kids Excited about Eating Their Fruits and Veggies, Vermont-style

I’ve been the Food Service Director for Milton Town School District for two years now. My goal is to make lunchtime a dining experience for the students, which has proven to be a success. Try our five simple steps to get your students excited to eat their fruits and veggies!

  1. Presentation, Presentation, Presentation. Just as location is one of the most important factors in real estate, presentation is key when serving fruits and vegetables to kids. We all realize fruits and vegetables can be a difficult sell so it is extremely important to present foods in an appetizing way. I make sure to use a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables and use them to compose colorful salads and entrees, as well as coordinating side dishes with the entrees. For example, if we serve an ethnic entrée, the salads will compliment it---Caesar salad with pasta or a bean salad with tacos. We also strategically place our fruit and veggie bars before the point of sale so that students can’t miss them. Along with posting fun posters that explain the new meal changes and let kids know how to navigate the salad bars, we use MyPlate signage and advertise the meals that are served each day.
  2. Variety. Every day there are new offerings in the fruit and vegetable salad bar. Variety is important because it encourages students to try new items, they don’t get bored of eating the same thing, and it exposes students to foods that they might not have seen before. I also try and menu plan where we can make salad and soups with leftovers as they already count in your meal plan for the week, which is also a great way to reduce waste and present items in more than one way. We serve fresh fruit everyday, using local ingredients when possible. Some popular choices are strawberries, apples, peaches, melons, tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers. The latest hit is delicate squash, hot or cold, with nutmeg and cinnamon- we cut them to look like smiley faces and the kids love it! Check out some of our favorite recipes below.
  3. Staff Training. It is extremely important for all food service staff to be well educated in the new meal standards passed through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. To ensure that our entire staff was on the same page with the new meal standards, we conducted summer staff trainings covering cafeteria redesign, customer service and food presentation. I am a member of the Vermont School Nutrition Association. Through this organization I have the opportunity to share a lot of creative ideas including ways to train my staff. Now that the school year is in session, we coordinate at the end of each day to plan the next day’s salad bar options and make sure they compliment the entrees.  I think many operators were under the impression that they could not make and serve composed salads, which is not true. It is easier to offer whole fruits in your menu and my staff knew it would be more work to prepare them any other way, but the reality is that kids will consume precut, bite-sized fruit offerings. A little extra effort on presentation has really helped in getting the kids to consume the foods offered.  I spend time at the point of sale and compliment students’ attractive trays and varieties they choose. This is a great way to encourage your students. We also made sure to get the same message out to all of the students about the new meal changes and strongly encourage positive service from all food service staff.
  4. Get kids involved! You have to get the students involved in the process of adding new foods to the menu. Kids like to share their opinions and they get excited about it. I try to eat lunch with them as often as possible and listen to their feedback, ask them what they like and don’t like---make them feel heard. Some great ways to get their opinions are by giving out samples, having taste tests and encouraging students to always try something new before they say they don’t like it. We take student feedback very seriously. Recently, the younger kids complained about the General Tso chicken dish being spicy, so we changed the recipe. We also had several requests for a Mexican breakfast burrito, which is turning out to be a big hit. In addition to meat entrees we make sure to offer vegetarian options such as lasagna, stir fry and bean burritos. Taking the extra step to communicate with students will help to ensure that your food is being eaten by the kids and not ending up in the garbage cans. 
  5. Make it an experience. I look at the students as our customers and try to deliver a restaurant-like service. I make sure the food in the serving line looks appealing and most importantly tastes good. Some of our students’ favorites are pretty simple. We make a Caesar Salad, but instead of a manufactured dressing we make our own by using lemon juice, olive oil (small amount), parmesan cheese and pepper. It’s quick, easy and delicious. Other favorites are Apple Carrot Salad, Black Bean and Cilantro Salad, Chilled Harvard Beets and Roasted Veggies. Not everyone has chef training, but it’s still easy to be creative and make great looking and tasting food.
    Students’ favorite is the Caesar Salad with homemade dressing. It’s quick, easy and delicious. (Photo courtesy of Milton Town School District)

Don’t forget that there are support services that can help with menu planning ideas. Find your local School Nutrition Association chapter, talk to other school districts in your area and go online! The Food and Nutrition Service has a best practices sharing website where food service directors from around the country upload tips and recipes and resources for food service staff.

These three delicious recipes -- Sweet Potato & Apple Salad with Lime Vinaigrette, Summer Ratatouille, and Tuscan White Bean Salad with Roasted Garlic -- from Vermont's school chefs have inspired us to bring school meals home! Learn how to make these healthy, delicious recipes here.

Steve Marinelli is the Food Service Director for Milton Town School District, where he oversees the school lunch and breakfast programs across school cafeterias. He has over 35 years of experience win catering, managing food service at college campuses and food service at the Vermont State Capitol.

See other blog posts in this series: