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Trends in school cafeteria lunches: feeding our kids healthy and delicious options

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Trends in school cafeteria lunches

This post is sponsored by the School Nutrition Association, but all opinions are mine. Thank you for supporting the brands and initiatives that support San Antonio Mom Blogs!

In years past, when my kids went back to school, I didn’t give school cafeteria lunches much thought other than to (wrongly) assume that the offered lunch options were not as healthy as the lunches I packed for my kids. I changed my mind about that this summer after attending the national School Nutrition Association’s annual conference here in San Antonio.

Trends in school cafeteria lunches

Along with 6,500 school nutrition professionals from across the country, I attended conference sessions, including one on Farm to School initiatives and another on How to Feed the Teenage Brain. I also explored the huge, 200,000-square-foot exhibit hall, featuring booths by 412 different companies, with the help of two experienced tour guides, Cynthia Barton, district dietitian for NISD, and Louisa Kates, director of school nutrition services for NEISD, both of whom eagerly discussed with me the current trends for our school cafeterias.

Trends in school cafeteria lunches

Trends in school cafeteria lunches

While spending the day among them, I learned our school nutrition professionals passionately spend their time and energy each year working to provide healthy, balanced meals for our kids that meet the USDA’s strict nutritional guidelines, while also finding creative and fun ways to encourage our kids to eat more fruits and vegetables and try foods that are new to them.

After spending a day immersed in school nutrition topics including food allergies, scratch cooking, clean label menus, and more, I learned about the following trends which are important to school cafeterias (including yours!) this year:

Trends in school cafeteria lunches:

1. Clean Label
In essence, the term “clean label” refers to foods and products that are as natural as possible. These foods are minimally processed and meet USDA standards for school cafeterias. Many of the companies I met at the School Nutrition Association’s Annual National Conference (ANC) work to provide clean label products. Mr. Clean at the Jennie-O booth eagerly showed off some of their upcoming clean label products soon to be featured at a school cafeteria near you:

Trends in school cafeteria lunches

2. Sous-vide
According to Wikipedia, sous-vide is “a method of cooking in which food is sealed in airtight plastic bags then placed in a water bath or in a temperature-controlled steam environment for longer than normal cooking times.” The beauty of sous-vide prepared meats for school cafeterias is that the meat becomes thoroughly cooked, meeting safety standards, but it can also have flavors, spices, and sauces added to it, allowing cafeterias to use the meat in many different preparations.

The folks at J.T.M. Food Group are currently the only company providing sous-vide meats to school cafeterias. They demonstrated and had me taste test five different recipes, each using the same sous-vide meat, prepared in uniquely different (and delicious) ways. Cynthia Barton, with NISD, especially loves the idea of sous-vide products because NISD cafeterias do not use any raw proteins in their kitchens due to safety standards. The new sous-vide products allow her to use a commodity product in many different ways.

Trends in school cafeteria lunches

3. Limited Time Offer (LTO)
Cafeterias around the country are embracing this method of serving a new dish at least four different times a year to gauge students’ interest in it to see if they should add it to their menus permanently. Upcoming LTOs at San Antonio school districts include street tacos and unique and locally produced fruits and vegetables.

Trends in school cafeteria lunches
4. A larger variety and more choices for middle school students
School cafeteria professionals at middle schools will tell you: these students crave comfort food, but they also want to kick their menus up a notch. This year in middle schools, more choose-your-own options will be offered, including at salad bars, with various condiments for tacos, and at the grill. Of course, all options must still meet USDA standards for healthy meals but the variety and expanded choices will give kids more control over their choices while also helping them begin to mature their palates.

Trends in school cafeteria lunches

5. Second breakfast at high schools
High school cafeteria professionals noticed many kids arriving really early for before-school sports practices. Although most of these kids eat breakfast at home before practice, afterwards they’re quite hungry again, but they’ve missed the school breakfast line and their lunchtime is still hours away. Many schools across the country are implementing “second breakfast” to provide these kids with an additional opportunity to eat after practice and before school starts. Some use campus carts in highly trafficked areas with easy-to-grab fruits, juices, yogurts, and protein bars to keep kids fueled for the school day ahead.

Trends in school cafeteria lunches

5. Farm to School initiatives
Farm to school initiatives are gaining traction around the country. Whether it’s school gardens producing fruits and veggies to serve in the cafeteria, or school programs to purchase more locally grown fruits, vegetables, and other food, this is a continuing trend you’ll see grow in more schools around the country this year. Be sure to read our recent post about Farm to School initiatives in San Antonio schools for more info!

Learning about farm to school at the School Nutrition Association's Annual National Conference

Are you seeing (or do you hope to see) any other trends in  your school’s cafeteria this year? Please share them in the comments below. Happy back to school, everyone!

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