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Chef Leverages USDA Team Nutrition Grant to Develop Healthy Menus for Students

Chef Brenda with foodservice staff

Chef Brenda works with foodservice staff to assemble her breakfast burrito recipe during the chef designed school taste testing.

The following guest blog highlights the important work of Chef Brenda Thompson, RDN (Registered Dietitian Nutritionist).  Thanks to a USDA Team Nutrition grant, she developed recipes for the Chef Designed School Lunch cookbook.  Chef Brenda is currently working with the Idaho State Department on the final stages of her second book, Chef Designed School Breakfast, which will be published online at the end of this year.

By Chef Brenda Thompson, RDN

As an advocate for school foodservice staff, I am committed to being a resource—both in getting the word out about the nutrition goals schools are achieving daily and in helping kitchen staff be more efficient and have fun at their jobs.

In conjunction with these goals, I am often presented with opportunities to provide support for schools in meeting the standards set forth in the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. Since I enjoy marketing healthy foods to kids and encouraging them to try new things, these opportunities are a great privilege.

The Chef Designed School Lunch Cookbook

The Idaho State Department’s Child Nutrition Program (CNP) was provided a USDA Team Nutrition Grant and then chose me to develop the recipes for the Chef Designed School Lunch Cookbook.

This cookbook contains a two-week cycle lunch menu including 17 of my recipes which were designed and developed with school foodservice target budgets in mind. Each day’s menu utilizes between four and eight USDA Foods in order to keep costs low.

Early Support for the Project

In its early stages of development, administrators and teachers supported our efforts by helping to generate interest and enthusiasm for these menus, speaking positively about our meals. In addition, many purchased lunches and ate with the students.

Before we began this project, the administrator and I also visited each classroom to let students know they would be served “Chef Designed Lunches” every Tuesday. The students often expressed excitement knowing these meals would be prepared by a chef.

(When offering these menus in your schools, it is a good idea to market them as “Chef Designed School Lunches.” Idaho CNP has provided marketing sheets for each entrée featured in the book on their website.)

Meal Testing

The meals in the Chef Designed School Lunch Cookbook were tested every Tuesday at a school that served approximately 500 meals and transported approximately 200 of them. The menus were tested in a kitchen with limited equipment: two convection ovens, a tilt skillet, warmers, a proof box, mixer, and a dishwasher. Grades served were kindergarten through twelfth, and each meal was tested and revised to address the likes and dislikes of all students at the school.

Training and Results

After the testing phase of the recipes, I worked with the Idaho State Department to provide six trainings, two in each of Idaho’s three regions. Each training consisted of a four-hour session, which included a discussion of school cooking techniques, such as low-sodium, speed-scratch cooking (using a combination of processed and fresh foods), preparing whole-grains and converting recipes to meet the meal pattern for each grade group. 

After completing the Chef Designed School Lunch Project, I was pleased to see the results of a statewide survey: 72.97 percent of schools had tried at least one recipe from the cookbook, and of that number, 42.31 percent had tried more than five recipes. Some of the most popular recipes in the cookbook include fish tacos, mozzarella crusted pollock, cheeseburger salad wrap, and volcanic meatloaf.

As I reflect on the culmination of this project, I am thrilled to see that the USDA Team Nutrition Grant was put to excellent use. I also greatly appreciate the Idaho CNP team and foodservice staff who made this project possible, as well as the administrators and teachers who generated enthusiasm for chef designed lunches in their schools.

Download a copy of the Chef Designed School Lunch Cookbook here.

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