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!