Kicking out the Salt… Kicking up the Flavor! Strategies to enhance flavor & increase participation in School Meals!

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I always seem to have a song stuck in my head.   And last week, as I was thinking about the strategies that we had used in our RSU#14 (Maine) to decrease the sodium levels in our school meals, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville found its way into my thought stream…

“Searching for my lost shaker of salt… salt… SALT!”  It doesn’t even make much sense… but there it was, endlessly tracking though my consciousness.   But then I got to thinking … maybe Jimmy, and we, should stop looking for our lost shaker of salt, and instead learn to season food appropriately and with LESS salt, allowing the natural flavors to come through! 

Since 2010, School Nutrition Directors across the country have been striving to lower the sodium in the school meals that they serve, in order to meet the Target 1 sodium level guidelines of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010.   8 years into HHFK, some districts are still finding the lower sodium guidelines  challenging.    I’ll admit – decreasing the salt in our own district has been a process, and as I tell people all the time, you can’t change everything overnight.  It’s too drastic.  It can be unfamiliar and/or burdensome  to your staff and your customers.     Over the years, we have gotten it… and  I always like to think of the process as steps on a journey.  That way, if you get off track, you can always go back to the steps in the plan & get right back on track again, kind of like a road map.  Perfection is not required… just forward movement striving toward the end goal.   Here are 5 steps that we have found helpful in decreasing the sodium in our school meals while maintaining palatability and growing student participation. 

#1.  Procurement – In the process of building menu cycles and going out to bid for products, be sure to watch the nutrition labels on items such as hamburger/sandwich rolls, breads, cheese, prepared entree items such as chicken patties & chicken nuggets, soups, etc.  Write bid specifications that request lower sodium options.  Shop around for brands and if purchasing locally, work with the manufacturer to lower sodium.  In our district, we were purchasing a locally prepared fresh salsa… but the sodium was too high for us to use the product on a regular basis.   By cultivating our relationship & connecting with the company, we were able to have them decrease the amount of sodium in their salsa so that we could continue to menu it regularly in our school nutrition program.

#2. Scratch Cooking – Many processed foods have sodium added during manufacturing, therefore, transitioning to scratch cooking gives you the control over the amount of sodium in foods that you cook and serve.  Explore new recipes, especially recipes developed for schools since HHFK 2010.  Two great resources that we love are The New School Cuisine Cookbook from the creative folks at Vermont Feed.  This is a free resource and it is packed with delicious recipes developed for schools! You can download the book here:   Another great resource for recipes is Team Nutrition’s Recipes for Healthy Kids Cookbook for Schools which you can find here:

As you move to scratch cooking, or if you are already scratch cooking, but your recipes need a salt reduction, gradually cut back the added salt.  Try cutting the added salt by 1/4 or 1/2 while increasing other seasonings, herbs & spices.  Be sure to watch those nutrition labels on your ingredients, too!  Sodium tends to lurk in unexpected places!  Sauces, dressings, marinades – all tend to be loaded with sodium, so opt for low sodium versions or make your own!

#3. Seasoning Blends – We have found that by using salt free seasoning blends, we are able to enhance the flavors of our food without adding additional salt.  Seasoning blends can be added in place of salt in the cooking process and/or can be added on the serving line to liven up the flavors.  We have a chart that our team uses to help them season foods appropriately.

Source: Creating Culinary Strategies;  Culinary Nutrition Associates
Catharine Powers, MS, RDN, LD

Seasoning blends, as well as herbs & spices can be part of a flavor station as well, giving students the ability to spice it up all on their own!  Be sure that the seasonings that you are putting at the flavor station are sodium free or low sodium!   Here is a fantastic resource with lots of ideas, from the School Nutrition Association:

Hot pepper flakes, Sriracha sauce, Lemon Pepper are some real favorites, especially with teenagers.  Even the seasoning blends from the resource posted about are great to put into shaker jars for seasoning food at the point of service!

A photo from Whole Spice, my favorite spice shop
in Napa Valley

#4 – Switching from Canned Vegetables to Fresh & Frozen Vegetables – This is really one of the easiest ways to lower the sodium in meals, while at the same time increasing acceptability and consumption!   Salad Bars packed with fresh fruits and vegetables allow students the opportunity to crunch their way through healthy choices that they will love!  As we have moved to offering more fresh vegetables, we have seen students taking … and eating more vegetables than ever!  In addition to offering raw veggies on salad bars or on garden bars, also consider roasting vegetables by tossing them in a small amount of olive oil and adding one of the seasoning blends from our chart!  We recently served roasted asparagus and the kids went crazy for it, piling their trays with it & digging in! 

Roasted Asparagus Filling up a Middle School Student’s Tray

#5 – Involve Your Customers  –   Throughout the change process, it is essential to involve your customers – the students! We have worked to educate the students – in the classroom and in the cafeteria.    From school gardens to in-class cooking & nutrition education to utilizing the cafeteria as a classroom, teaching kids about healthy food is a cornerstone of our school nutrition program!  Kids love being involved – in growing food, in preparing food, in sampling food and in naming new recipes!   When we switched from using canned baked beans in our school nutrition program to making them from scratch, our chef sampled the recipe in the classroom with students, allowed them to try them… and eventually letting them name the new recipe!  Our school-made baked beans became “Chef Sam’s Better Bacon Baked Beans”… and it is not uncommon to hear students exclaim that they don’t like “regular” baked beans… but they really LOVE Chef Sam’s Better Bacon Baked Beans.  The process of involving the students in the process of developing the recipe and taste testing it and naming it gave them buy in.   My friend Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, of School Meals that Rock and President of Nutrition for the Future, makes a point to tell audiences that food is not nutrition if it gets dumped in a trash can… but if you involve students by giving them opportunities to Grow It, Cook It, Taste It – they will embrace new menu items and they will be more open to tasting (and liking!) formerly unfamiliar foods and flavors.

One final hint:  If you are a Facebook user, make it a priority to join the Facebook Group “Tips for School Meals that Rock”.   This group is a peer to peer sharing group that is an incredible resource for information, ideas and “how-to” strategies from school nutrition colleagues from across the country!  Every day it is packed with fresh inspiration, recipes, questions  & support that will definitely help you kick out the salt, increase participation and conquer other day to day challenges that we face as school nutrition pros!  

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