Everyday I’m Brusselin’

Me and brussels sprouts…. we go way, way back. For nearly 5 decades, I was a self avowed hater of brussels sprouts. The story, it seems, is one of those family stories, the ones that become legend after time. In a large family, everyone remembers, everyone revels in telling the tale, and the story itself grows bigger & more embellished as the years go by.

sometime back in the 60’s

The above photo is of my family, circa some time around the same time of the now famous brussels sprouts story. The arrow is pointing to me, the (at the time) self avowed brussels sprouts hater. Just like in this picture, in my memory, it was summer. My mother served brussels sprouts for dinner. I’m sure that my face looked exactly like it does in the photo. I hated brussels sprouts. I’m sure the ones that we had for dinner that night were frozen, I’m sure they were steamed… or better yet, boiled.

I was required to eat 2, and of course, they were the last thing on my plate, finally cold and unappealing. Still – I had to eat them. I put them both in my mouth, one sprout in each cheek…. and sat there. And sat there and sat there, for what seemed like an eternity to my younger self. I was not allowed to leave the table until I swallowed, and I absolutely could not swallow them. The sun went down, the evening wore on and bedtime arrived.

Finally, my mother took pity on me and said that whatever vitamins that were in those brussels sprouts MUST have assimilated into my body through my cheeks in some sort of miracle osmosis. I was allowed to spit the brussels sprouts out.

That was the last time I ate brussels sprouts for over 40 years.

Flash forward to a few years ago. I was dining with friends at a restaurant in DC. One of my companions ordered a plate of brussels sprouts. “Are you crazy?”, I wondered. Who does this? When the brussels sprouts arrived, this was the plate:

Crispy Brussels Sprouts Afelia @ Zaytinya

After having just spent the previous week cooking unfamiliar foods with elementary school students & asking them to try the foods that we had cooked, I was a little embarrassed that I didn’t want to try the brussels sprouts. We were, after all, in Washington to talk about our successes in encouraging children to consume vegetables and fruit. So, in the end, I tried them, and I instantly fell in love. Nearly 50 years of brussels sprout hatred disappeared with a single dish of roasted brussels sprouts.

Now, its important to realize here, that my husband is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and I have quite a bit of culinary training myself. Through the years, he would tell me if I would just let him roast them, or cook them the “right” way, I would love them – but no way. I wasn’t having it… I wasn’t ready.

Studies show that it can take 10 or more exposures to a food to learn to acquire a taste for it… or to decide whether or not you really like it… or not. Maybe that evening in DC, maybe that was my 10th time trying brussels sprouts. Who knows? The point here is that it can take trying foods over and over again, in different forms of preparation to learn to like them.

Maple Roasted Brussels Sprouts in RSU#14

This week in our elementary schools, we served Maple Roasted Brussels Sprouts as a Try It Tuesday. The results were great – over 50% of the students really enjoyed them. We will offer them again next year for another Try It Tuesday! We love exposing students to new flavors and new foods – helping them to expand their palate and helping them to learn to love healthy food.

What foods have you learned to love over time? What successes have you had with Try It days in your schools?

brussels sprouts from a local Maine Farmers Market

Changes in Attitude

I love the quote in the above graphic: If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got – Henry Ford.

Just imagine if Henry Ford had not been able to dream big & step out into the unknown. Real change – real innovation only can happen when you take risks, when you are willing to challenge yourself & your ideas to see where the journey will take you!

Lately, I have been fortunate enough to be a part of several collaborative groups that have been spending some time reflecting on the transformation of school nutrition programs over the past 8-10 years and looking forward to imagine what changes Child Nutrition Reauthorization will bring. During these meetings, I often reflect on the growth of the school nutrition program in the district where I work. To outsiders, it may seem that we have some sort of magic wand that has enabled us to successfully embrace the ever changing guidelines of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. When I mention our growth in participation, or in customer satisfaction, or in the increase in scratch cooking & the culinary aptitude of our team, it seems that I am met with something like this: “oh, well, we aren’t you. In my district, we could never….” and then, you can insert whatever barrier seems to be holding people back: We could never switch to scratch cooking, our team doesn’t have the skill set. We couldn’t ever hire a chef onto our team. We don’t have time to market our program. We don’t know anything about social media marketing.

Here’s a couple of truths though:

  1. My district, the school nutrition program where I am the director, is no different than any other school nutrition program. We are faced with the same budgetary issues, the same staffing challenges, the same public image problems… except that we have strategized how to break down the challenges that we are faced with, and bit by bit we tackle the challenges and we transform, we change, we grow. When others seem to infer that we have a magic wand – it really diminishes the incredible hard work, dedication & effort on the part of our managers, cooks and kitchen helpers.
  2. We don’t accept “We Can’t” from our team, and I do not use that language either. If your mantra is continually “We Can’t” or “That’s not the way we used to do it” or “No one will ever go for that”, you will continue to struggle – or to paraphrase Henry Ford – you’ll just keep getting what you’ve already got.
  3. Real sustainable change does not happen overnight. It is a gradual transformation process. We have had a chef as part of our School Nutrition team since the 2013/14 School Year, before that, we were working with “Guest Chefs” visiting out schools on a rotating basis, as part of the Chefs Move to School Campaign. We have been marketing our school nutrition program on Social Media since 2012. Those first changes were just the beginnings of a greater transformation, not just in the school meals that we are serving, but in the general attitude & respect toward our school nutrition program. We’ve been at this a while, and we aren’t done. There is always work to do, always new challenges to tackle. That’s what keeps the job exciting and interesting.

Baby Steps

People who know me well know that Baby Steps is my motto. It’s important to stop using language like “We Can’t” or “That’s not the way we’ve always done it” or “the kids will never eat that”. Changing your attitude is the first and most important step. Then, plot out your next step – change just one menu item over to a scratch cooked menu item. Start a marketing campaign on social media and make one post. If that feels overwhelming, find a high school student or a millennial. They will certainly be able to easily guide you through that process. Plan a summer knife skills training or a culinary boot camp for your team. Any of these steps are a great starting point to launching sustainable change within your school nutrition program.

I have written quite a bit about our journey and the steps & success strategies that we have used. You can find the most recent of those posts here in A Recipe for Success, Revisited:


I hope you will scroll through some of the posts on this blog, and through some of the posts on the Facebook Group Tips for School Meals That Rock. Find some inspiration wherever you can… and then take a baby step… or a giant leap… toward a change in attitude & sustainable change in your school nutrition program.

Reach out & let me know how it’s going! I’d love to know what inspires you & your school nutrition journey is going!

Got Social Media??

Got Social Media?  

I’ve been thinking about Social Media lately. It could be because the month of March is our craziest month of promotion, as we Eat Our Way Through The Alphabet for #NationalNutritionMonth. During this month, in the district where I am the School Nutrition Director, we make an extra effort to publicize and promote our #EatYourWayThroughTheAlphabet celebration, posting daily updates corresponding with the letter of the alphabet that we are on, and what fruits & vegetables we are serving. You can check all of this out over at Windham Raymond School Nutrition Program on Facebook, or on Instagram at lunch4kids_rsu14 and on Twitter at @Lunch4KidsRSU14.

More importantly though, with the “relaxing” of the federal school nutrition guidelines and conversations that I have been having with other directors, other school nutrition professionals about their successes & challenges, I’ve started to reflect back on the role that social media has played in our school nutrition success story.  

So… what role did social media play? Certainly, our district does a phenomenal job at providing healthy & delicious school meals that meet the USDA guidelines. We have an amazing team, we have a district chef, we have school gardens, cooking classes for kids, and a lot of passion for providing innovative, delicious, kid friendly, healthy school meals. But here’s the thing: without social media… how would we have informed our customers, decision makers & influencers about what we were doing, what our end product looked like? How could we have so effectively shared our story?  

Sharing our story via social media – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – has allowed us to provide visual evidence and a narrative about our initiatives. It allowed us to gain the trust & support of parents & other stakeholders in our community. Since launching our social media marketing strategies, our school meal participation increased 80% at breakfast and 15% at lunch. We frequently get requests for recipes, emails of support and thanks. We are succeeding in changing the school nutrition culture in our communities, and social media has been our vehicle for sharing our successes. It’s free, it’s user friendly, it’s accessible.. and it has worked for us.  

School nutrition should not be a “best kept secret” in any community! School nutrition programs should be regarded as the child nutrition experts in the community, providing access to healthy school meals, accessible to all children.

A Recipe for Success, revisited

Last week, at a meeting, I was reminded about what I call the recipe for success.   5 “C’s” that encapsulate the strategies that we have used in our district to achieve lasting success in changing school nutrition times. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do have some thoughts regarding our “formula” for success. In a past blog post, I boiled down my thoughts into what I call the 5 C’s.  I am adding a 6th C to my so called recipe: Culinary training.  Read on…

1. Culture: It is important to pay attention to the culture of the area, the culture of your schools, current market trends & market demographics.   What I mean by this is… know your market.  For some districts in the south, finding whole grain grits was a major issue.  Our northern students wouldn’t know what to do if we served them grits, not being familiar with that particular food item.  We faced other challenges, including procurement: finding acceptable whole grain tortillas for wraps, consistent availability of all whole grain items from our distributers, etc.    But, paying attention to the culture means knowing what the kids in your geographical area like to eat & are used to eating, and finding ways to offer similar fare within your own eating establishment and within the USDA guidelines. By giving your customers what they want AND following the guidelines, you will achieve success.  

2. Collaborate: Collaboration is key to the success – Collaboration with administration, parents, staff and students. Building bridges with families, and gaining support from district administrators fosters a culture that welcomes the positive results that change brings.

Having the necessary support from your district’s administrators is essential, but even more important is building bridges and getting “buy in” from the customers – students and parents.  Our district’s after school “cooking club” has become wonderful way to foster the relationship between the school nutrition program and families.  Families get to meet school nutrition personnel, taste actual recipes that are being made and served in the cafeteria.  Taste testing and/or cooking in the classroom with students is also a great way to introduce students to new foods, new recipes and menu items.  Allowing students the opportunity to name the recipe takes this collaboration one step further.

3. Creativity: Creativity helps to keep the changes fresh and new, allowing our customers to stay interested & engaged. Adding creative touches to menus, cafeteria environment and by featuring theme menus, market trends and other innovations creates excitement and generates increased meal participation.

In our district, monthly “Fun Friday Breakfasts” have had a positive impact on breakfast participation at our elementary schools.  We have seen a sustained 30% growth in our breakfast average daily participation by hosting a once a month themed breakfast.  Popular themes include sports themes (think: Super Bowl) and “Frozen” theme, featuring “Olaf” string cheese and hot cocoa muffins.  We have even had an “Angry Bird” Fun Friday Breakfast and a “Fruit Ninja” themed breakfast.  Keep it fun – they will keep coming 🙂

We have also recently incorporated theme lunches which have further served to engage our students and build participation. Opening Day Baseball theme, Farm to School Theme, Super Bowl, Holidays, district sporting events…. any day is fair game for a theme menu infused with excitement.

Fun Monster Sandwiches for a Halloween Lunch

Need ideas to boost your school nutrition program’s creativity level?  One good place to start is to join the Facebook group “Tips for School Meals That Rock”.    This group has become an endless source of inspiration, sharing and support.  A curated “google” for School Nutrition…. There are close to 6000 members.   Check it out & hang out a bit there if you aren’t already there!   I can guarantee you’ll find inspiration & support!  

4. Communication: We have found that communicating has been a key essential strategy throughout the change process. Communication = Marketing, and through marketing we have kept our customers & their families informed. Marketing can be done on menus, emails, newsletters, websites, and via social media sites. Families want to know how hard we are striving to provide healthy, nutritious meals.

Social media has become a powerful tool for us.   Offering  photographic documentation & evidence of our menu and events lends credibility and authenticity.  Growing fresh produce in your school garden?  Post a photo on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and/or Snapchat.  Are students excited about school meals? Post a photo (make sure you have the proper release, of course) of happy students enjoying their school meals. Families want to know & trust that their kids are being fed delicious, healthy meals.  Many of today’s parents are millennials, who expect communications to happen in a digital format. Our journey to healthier meals brought many changes. Social media was our key strategy for informing the community about the changes that were happening. In the past 6 years, or so, our primary source of marketing has been through Social Media: Facebook, Twitter & Instagram. During this time we have seen a significant increase in both breakfast & lunch participation. (approx 80% at breakfast and 15% at lunch)

No matter what communication strategy you choose…. don’t lose this point: Marketing is essential.

5. Culinary Training –   Continual Culinary trainings & culinary boot camps have become the norm for us, constantly working alongside our staff, empowering them & building them up. Knife skills training, recipe development:   we have strategized and trained our staff in proper techniques for preparing whole grains, seasoning blends to decrease sodium, scratch cooking tips & techniques…  we are constantly strived to improve and impress.  

Yearly Culinary Bootcamp for School Nutrition Staff

6. . Constantly Changing: We are constantly changing and always adapting – as we tweak recipes, adjust menus, re-organizing work strategies and procure new product. It is a lot of work, but extremely rewarding – when you receive a simple email from a parent thanking you for introducing a child to many new foods or a note from students… it makes all of the work absolutely worth it. Successful strategies in school nutrition take a lot of work, but the end results: well nourished students ready to learn & achieve, positive support from families, the community, increasing participation… these results make it all worth while. We are #FeedingTheFuture!

Breaking Barriers with School Breakfast

It is National School Breakfast Week , a celebration & promotion of schools that provide breakfast to children across the country… so: happy National School Breakfast Week!

If you are a School Breakfast provider, someone who heads to school long before the sun comes up to prepare a healthy & delicious breakfast for hundreds of school kids, THANK YOU! You are feeding the future! For some school children, breakfast at school might be the first well balanced meal that they have eaten since school lunch the day before!

If you are a School Breakfast supporter, a teacher, school administrator, or even community member who has lent your voice and your support to a school breakfast program in your community, THANK YOU! A successful school breakfast program takes commitment and coordination. It takes an acknowledgement of the benefits of school breakfast, and flexibility of scheduling in order to keep the program successful, and the students well fed.

If you are a School Nutrition Director who has tirelessly advocated, administered, planned & promoted the school breakfast program in your district, in your schools, THANK YOU! I fully believe that #ChildrenAreTheInfrastructure and we are #FeedingTheFuture! By providing a healthy school breakfast for children every single day, schools are ensuring that kids will have the best start to their school day, well nourished and ready to learn!

Make your own Teddy Bear Toast in RSU #14 in Maine

I love the School Breakfast program. Nationally, 14.6 million breakfasts are served to school children every single school day. That adds up to 2.4 billion school breakfasts throughout the school year (2017 figures)! Over 80% of those breakfasts are served to students who qualify for free or reduced price meals, providing significant nutrition for children experiencing the greatest need. (figures provided from the Little Big Fact Book – the essential guide to school nutrition 2019 – published by the School Nutrition Association) 

Studies show that student who eat breakfast at school:

  • Have better attendance
  • Are tardy less often
  • Are better able to concentrate
  • Perform better academically through higher test scores and grades – especially when breakfast is eaten close to testing time
  • Make fewer visits to the school nurse
  • Have fewer disciplinary problems

School Breakfast helps solve the hectic morning rush, too! School breakfast provides a nutritious, convenient & economical solution for busy families in the morning.  By relying on school breakfast to feed hungry students before school, families can trust that their school nutrition department will offer a balanced, nutrient-rich meal. 

School Breakfast promotional graphic provided by No Kid Hungry

The national average price for a full price school breakfast is between $1.46 and $1.55, depending on the the student grade-level. Many students, those qualifying for free or reduced price meals, eat at no charge, or for a nominal price of $0.30. On a recent trip to the grocery store, I found that if I purchased all of the components included in a school breakfast, including 8 oz of milk and a full cup of fruit, the comparable breakfast would cost me at least $1.50. Even at full price, a school breakfast makes good economic sense. And for families who qualify for free or reduced price meals, school breakfast is a great solution to stretching the family food budget or those precious SNAP dollars. It is a sure fire way to help students power up & be energized for the school day!

What perplexes me is why so many children are not accessing school breakfast! With over 25 million students qualifying for free and reduced price meals nationally (National Center for Education Statistics – SY 2015) why are schools only serving HALF of those economically disadvantaged students a school breakfast? The statistics are the nearly the same in my district, my state and across the country. Is the problem lack of access? Lack of time? Lack of awareness? Lack of administrative support? Lack of trust? Fear of stigmatization?

Even in the schools in my district where we offer Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC) or Second Chance Breakfast or Room Service Breakfast Carts, breakfast participation continues to hover around 50%. By implementing these strategies, participation has definitely improved (80% increase in breakfast participation since 2012), but we still have so much ground to cover, so many more students who need access to a nutritious breakfast to start their day.

whole grain apple french toast bake made with real maple syrup – RSU #14

I believe that School Breakfast is the best way to ensure that all students are adequately nourished & ready for academic success. What are the keys to increasing participation and access in your district? What are success strategies that lead to all children having access to a nutritious breakfast? In my own district, we have used Breakfast in the Classroom, Room Service Breakfast Carts, Second Chance Breakfast & Fun Friday Breakfasts. We don’t qualify for Community Eligibility or Universal Breakfast… though I am sure those strategies significantly impact breakfast participation. How have you broken down the barriers and increased breakfast participation in your district?

Data & information in this blog was obtained from:

  • The Little Big Fact Book – School Nutrition Association.                                           
  • The National Center for Education Statistics – SY 2015                                            
  • Food Research & Action Center – School Breakfast Scorecard – 2017-2018

The Secret Sauce!

Wow… it has been almost 9 months since I have actually sat down to write.   Where did the time go???

2018 was such a busy year, such a change-filled year.   I suppose that is why I have neglected writing… too many other things taking up space in my calendar and in my thoughts.  But now, the calendar has turned.  We are opening up into a new year, with new possibilities, new challenges, new adventures.   So, once again… I am attempting to capture my thoughts & experiences.  Perhaps only for me… as a sort of online journal – I mean, who reads this stuff anyway?  But also perhaps for others to share in the experience and to commiserate and celebrate the successes and failures of working in the ever changing field of child nutrition.


2018 ended with a bit of excitement.  As a self professed newsy-nerdy type… I have always thought it would be awesome to have Public Radio do a story on our district’s school nutrition program & the successes that we have achieved.   We’ve been in the local newspaper before… and even on the local television news, but somehow (for me, anyway) Public Radio was a sort of major success – an opportunity to broadly share our amazing school nutrition journey.

With the changing (yet again) USDA guidelines and some recent news stories of how some local districts are choosing to not participate in the National School Lunch Program, I had a Maine Public reporter call me.  Our phone chat ended up leading to a nearly 4 hour on site visit, and a wonderful news story that aired on Maine Public Radio, as well as on their social media channels.   You can listen to the Maine Public news piece here.


Patty Wight, from Maine Public interviews Chef Samantha Gasbarro & Chef Ryan Roderick

In the report, the reporter refers to our district chef, Chef Samantha Gasbarro as our “secret weapon”.   It is 100% true that having a chef on staff has helped our district overcome hurdles that other districts were challenged by, when trying to meet the school nutrition guidelines of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010.  Chef Sam helped us to develop kid tested & kid approved scratch cooking recipes, trained & supported our staff, conducted in classroom food education sessions as well as after school cooking clubs, all of which made a huge impact on our school nutrition program and our community.

Windham Raymond School Nutrition staff during a recent professional development day

But if having a chef as an integral part of our school nutrition program’s administrative staff is our “secret weapon”, then our team – our kitchen managers, cooks and kitchen helpers –  is our “secret sauce”.   This dream team of school nutrition pros have amazed us with their commitment and dedication to feeding healthy food to the students  in our community.   They are an endless source of inspiration and enthusiasm.  This team helps us trouble shoot problems and embrace challenges.  And they do it all with enthusiasm & excitement & pride!  When I google the term, “Secret Sauce” this is the definition that I get:

Secret Sauce: A special quality or feature regarded as the chief factor in the success of something or someone.

YES!  That is exactly what I am talking about here.   Our staff, our team – they are the chief factor in the success of our school nutrition program.  Without them. our ideas, our inspiration, our mission… is lost.  We can’t do it without them… our success depends on their enthusiastic dedication.

All across the country, school nutrition workers are hard at work, ensuring that the children of this country are being fed healthy & nutritious food.  They are #FeedingtheFuture and they are integral to the success of every school nutrition program across the country.  They are … the “Secret Sauce”.  They are amazing!dots background with picnic basket graphic picnic invitation


In other news… as many of you know, our district chef, Chef Sam has moved on, taking some time off to be at home with her young family and to work on some other projects.   This visit from Maine Public came during her final weeks working in our district, which made the whole event somewhat bittersweet, and yet extra special as well.   We have hired a new chef, Chef Ryan Roderick, and we are incredibly excited to continue our school food adventures.   More about our transition in the future!

Chef Ryan Roderick at a recent Maine School Nutrition Association “Smoothie Smackdown” – (his team won!!)









Working in School Nutrition – Finding your #DreamJob & #FeedingtheFuture


All across the country, in school nutrition programs on the east coast, the west coast, north, south, and everywhere in between… it seems like there is a critical shortage of staff. We are experiencing it here in Maine… and directors that I talk to all over the country are often operating with as many as 25% of their positions unfilled at any given time.

Situations like this, working at below optimal staffing levels,  make providing the best school meals and the best student/school nutrition dept engagingment challenging. Working with subs or being short staffed altogether often leads to more convenience foods, less attention to detail and probably what troubles me the most is less innovation. We strive to keep all of our positions filled, but – the applicants aren’t even out there!

This problem has us wondering if people really know what a #dreamjob working in school nutrition can be?

Before I moved over into school nutrition, I had been working in food & nutrition management in the long term care setting. Prior to that, in a hospital setting.  During the first 15 years of my career, I became used to the 3 meals per day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Add to that alternating weekends and holidays… after a while, I longed for a little more predictability to my schedule. I envied my friends who had become teachers, who had weekends off, who seemed to have more time with their children. So … I jumped over to school nutrition.  Working in school nutrition, not only did I find that I had more  predictability and continuity in my work life,  I also found my real passion and more than a career. I love that we are #feedingthefuture and influencing the eating habits of the next generation. I love introducing children to new foods and new flavor combinations. I love teaching kids and families about healthful eating. I really love my staff and the passion that we share all toward the same goal.

Veggie Tales

And… I love having control over my schedule. When my children were young, once I moved over to working in school nutrition, I loved that I had weekends and holidays off, free to go on family adventures.

My staff & I talk about this all the time. Working in School Nutrition programs is an amazing job! And, the schedule is family friendly and predictable. Our staff even visit career events at vocational & culinary schools. We have a story to tell…. working in school nutrition is a challenging and rewarding career. Shaping the nutrition habits of young eaters will have lasting impact. Creatively crafting recipes and menus while maintaining compliance with School Nutrition guidelines is fulfilling & exciting. We have an amazing team and we really love what we do.

It’s almost like careers in school nutrition are the best kept secret in the food & nutrition industry. But we aim to get the word out! We have openings… and there are school nutrition openings across the country! Chefs, Registered Dietitians, Dietetic Technicians, Cooks, Bakers… all others interested in working in the food and/or nutrition industry: if you are looking for a change, consider a career in school nutrition! Schools in your area are looking for qualified candidates… you just might find your passion while you are #feedingthefuture!



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:  https://vermontfarmtoschool.org/resources/new-school-cuisine-cookbook-nutritious-and-seasonal-recipes-school-cooks-school-cooks.   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:   https://schoolnutrition.org/uploadedFiles/2_Meetings_and_Events/Presentation_PDFs/ANC_2017/Build-Customer-Satisfaction-with-Flavor-Stations.pdf

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!  

Ideas swim around in my head a lot. They kind of lurk there, roll around and get bigger and bigger, until I finally just have to act on them. Or – they get discarded or go to simmer on the back burner.
That’s sort of the case this week. I’ve had this idea that I wanted to share, but, seriously no actual time to share it… and it somehow just wasn’t coming together. And then, in my mail box is my February copy of SNA Magazine. The “Oh The Places You Will Go” cover & headline, captured my eye… and my attention. I have to be honest…. and many of you reading this will know what I am talking about… I didn’t have time to read the article associated with the cover photo, so I stuffed it in my bag for some quality reading on my way to #LAC18 later this week. So *disclaimer here* – I really have no idea what the article is really about… but the picture goes SO WELL with want I’ve been wanting to write about.
Earlier this fall, at the Northeast Regional Leadership Conference, I was inspired to hear the leadership story of several School Nutrition professionals from the New England area. I was struck by the impact of these personal stories and I really wanted to bring “Leadership Journey” stories back to my own state association, the Maine School Nutrition Association. I really was inspired by hearing about the career path that led to working in School Nutrition or why they got involved in their state association. The real stories that maybe you don’t always learn sitting across from someone in a meeting or conference.
I decided to start off our next Maine School Nutrition Association meeting with part of my own leadership story…. which I like to think of as “The Power of Yes”. I have worked in School Nutrition for over 20 years, but it wasn’t until about 5 years ago that I began embracing “The Power of Yes”. I like to say that my “NO” force field must have been up pretty high, because no one even asked me if I wanted to get involved in our state association, and to be honest… it for some reason never occurred to me. I suppose I was too busy to notice: busy with one district, then 2 districts, then a 3rd small one got added on… busy with life, family… you know what it’s like. But then… about 5 years ago… a friend reached out – burst through my NO force field – and asked. Would you consider running for president of Maine School Nutrition Association? Now to be honest, by this time I was sitting on the education committee of our board and was helping to plan conferences. But this was different. I don’t even know why, but I was inspired to do it. Many friends encouraged me. My husband did not. “Why would you want to add more to your plate?” he asked. And I really didn’t have a clear answer for that… except that I really had developed some vision – ideas – of what I thought could happen in Maine SNA, ideas that I thought needed sharing about how we were serving school meals in my district. Just those ideas… the ones that swim around in my head. And now, there was a crack in the NO force field.
The crack in the NO force field led me to start thinking about YES instead. And I made a conscious decision to start saying YES to opportunities that presented themselves, instead of automatically saying NO, to see where it would take me. So, I said YES when asked if I wanted to run for president of Maine SNA. Then, YES to being a lead mentor for the Institute of Child Nutrition and YES to presenting sessions at local, regional and national conferences. And I can honestly say it has been an incredible experience, making my School Nutrition experience so much richer, so much more enjoyable! I’ve met and collaborated with people from across the country, presented at conferences in places I’ve never been before. I’ve stretched and I’ve grown… and I’ve loved the experience. Has it always been easy and comfortable? No way! But the experiences have made me more well rounded, more knowledgeable, and I’ve expanded my horizons.
Change is good! Isn’t that what we are always telling our staff and the people that we work with? We expect that they will say YES instead of NO when we present them with an idea or a change or a new way of doing things. And so I challenge you to start considering saying YES … because you never know where it will take you!

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Chef Sam & I have been fortunate enough the past few years to have had the opportunity to travel around the country, sharing our School Nutrition Program’s success strategies.  Hitting the road to share our story often inspires us to do some soul searching & re-evaluating where we have been and how we have gotten where we are now.  Over the past 5 years, participation in our school breakfast and lunch program has grown by double digit percentages.   More students are eating school breakfast and lunch than ever before.   Our  participation has increased,  we are serving more  whole food, more locally grown foods, more recipes prepared onsite and community support for our school nutrition program is growing.

We are often asked now we have managed to accomplish this… and honestly, it’s not one single thing that has lead to our success, but a whole bunch of strategies that we have implemented… and that we continue to implement… that have really changed School Nutrition in our district, RSU #14 in Maine.   It all started with vision.  5 years ago, we were fortunate enough to have a visioning meeting, funded through a grant we had received.   We invited community members, members of our administrative team, school nutrition staff, school staff and school committee members.  Through this visioning meeting we established our vision and our goals for the way forward.

Now, I’m not saying that you need to have a fancy visioning meeting to establish your mission and vision, though for us, it was very helpful.  It is essential, however,  to sit down with key staff members and map out your mission and vision for the future.  A mission & vision can serve as your roadmap and guide as you make decisions that will effect your department.   One key decision that was made at our visioning meeting was a decision to consider adding a chef to our school nutrition team.   We did not rush right out & hire a chef after this meeting…. but when presented with the opportunity to replace a key, district-wide staff person, we utilized the opportunity to fill that position with a chef who could work district-wide with our team.

Another key strategy that came out of our visioning meeting was to increase our focus on local food, farm to school and school gardens in our School Nutrition Program.  Increasing our offerings of local foods – locally grown veggies, as well as locally raised meat – has really helped us to bring the freshest food possible to our customers – the students in RSU#14.

These changes – hiring a chef & focusing on locally grown & locally produced foods – didn’t happen immediately after our visioning meeting, nor, once implemented, did they immediately lead to increased participation.  Of course, we needed a way to “get the word out”… a way to inform our customers that our program was changing and we were offering fresher, more delicious food!  Enter social media….!  As our school nutrition program was changing and so many exciting things were happening, we decided to start a Facebook Page for our School Nutrition Program as a way to document the changes and communicate with the public.  The rationale was fairly simple…  I was using Facebook personally and I knew that so many other parents, moms especially, were using Facebook daily, and often from their mobile devices.  What better way to communicate with our community and show them pictures of what was happening in our kitchens than by using a social media platform that they were already using daily!  It was easy, it was accessible, it was free…  so we started our Facebook page.  Gradually, we also started Instagram & Twitter pages and we continue to use these social media platforms and grow our audience.

Our marketing strategies don’t stop at utilizing social media.  We also strongly believe in offering fun,

Frozen Fun Friday Breakfast

theme based menus for breakfast and lunch, especially at the youngest grades, as a way of making school meals fun and gaining new customers.  Our monthly Fun Friday Breakfasts at our elementary schools have helped grow our breakfast participation from less than 10% district wide to a regular average daily participation at breakfast of 30% or more.  Our fun themes might be a Dr. Suess theme, a menu based on the popular Frozen movie or even a Tropical Luau theme.   Creative menu naming, student chosen recipes, fun decorations, staff support…. all are essential ingredients to a successful menu promotion.

The  most important strategy that we have is building up & investing in our  amazing team.  I mean these people are real super heroes – they are so innovative & we are in awe of their dedication to feeding healthy food to the students in our district.   Beginning in 2012, we started utilizing culinary boot camps for departmental training.  Those trainings continue every summer, and Chef Sam offers “mini” trainings in each kitchen throughout the school year.   Chef Sam is quick to jump in & support our staff if they are struggling to prepare a new menu item, and this support has enabled our gradual move from a freezer to oven operation to one that now is approximately 85% scratch cooking!

Honestly…. these changes did not happen overnight.  Anyone who has heard me speak about this will know that I am a firm believer in the “baby-steps” approach to change.  We did not switch to scratch cooking all at once, but recipe by recipe – very slowly adding recipes as we became proficient.  There is no magic wand … and it takes a lot of hard work, dedication and trial and error.  We test recipes at our smallest school, working out the kinks, gaining staff & student feedback, adjusting as necessary. Only then will a recipe or menu item be rolled out on a larger scale.

From our visioning meeting way back in 2012 to back-to-school in 2017…  it is all about hard work, dedication and team work!  It will not happen overnight, and it may not happen in a year…  we are 5 years down the road, and we’ve made so many changes!  Who knows where the next five years will take us!   Our fantastic team believes that healthy food fuels hungry minds and we are dedicated to our vision.  Teamwork is what it takes to make the dream work.

Very Veggie Culinary Boot Camp
with Chef Sam & School Nutrition Staff from RSU#14