8 Tips for Feeding Kids from the School Food Experts
Thank you to Revolution Foods for sponsoring this post
Every parent knows what a big job it is to feed our kids day-in, day-out. So imagine what it’s like to get healthy food into thousands of children on the daily. That’s what Cliff Lyles does as executive chef of Revolution Foods, a company that delivers two million freshly-prepared meals to kids each week, including school districts and charter networks in the Bay Area where I live.
Lyles knows as well as anyone the importance of school nutrition. He grew up relying on school breakfast and lunch every day as a kid. “If I didn’t eat those two meals a day,” he said, “I wouldn’t have eaten.” It’s with that in mind that Lyles joined forces with Revolution Foods. The company’s mission is to build lifelong healthy eaters by making its meals accessible to all. I figured all that know-how was worth tapping into, so I interviewed Chef Lyles about what it takes to get kids to eat healthy food.
Here’s what I learned:
1. Ask for Input
Revolution Foods aims to make great tasting, healthy food that’s “kid-inspired, chef-crafted.” According to Lyles, students want a say in what goes on their plate, which is why he asks for input at every stage of the menu development process – this includes polling students about favorite foods, running taste tests, and inviting feedback when new items hit the menu.
“How to” at home — So maybe you’re not going to run a Gallup poll at home, but it is worth asking your family what they’re in the mood for, whether that means chicken or pasta for dinner or smoothies or cereal for breakfast.
2. Give them Options
Kids like feeling in control, says Lyles, which is why Revolution Foods gives them choices. They aren’t just handed one standard meal, but can pick and choose among several entrees, fruits, vegetables and sides.
“How to” at home — At home this is referred to as a “division of labor”. It’s your job as the parent to put good food options on the table, and it’s your kid’s job to choose what goes on their plate and how much of it they care to eat.
3. Let Them Know What’s Coming
Most kids want to know what to expect from their school lunch, which is why Revolution Food posts signs with menu items in the cafeteria every day. They also make sure all the food is visible, from family-style meals served in generous bowls to single-serve containers with clear and white packaging.
“How to” at home — Keep the lines of communication open about what’s cooking, literally. Let everyone one know what’s for dinner (and be willing to tolerate the inevitable groans). For some families, it works well to have a standing schedule, such as Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, Sandwich Night, and so on.
4. Make Small Changes
Moving the needle towards healthier eating tends to go over easier with gradual changes. Consider, for instance, how Chef Lyles got kids to eat brown rice when he ran taste tests in schools. First they served white rice, then they served brown and white rice side by side. Eventually they mixed the two, by which point most kids either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
“How to” at home — You can easily implement this approach at home by mixing whole and processed grains, sweetened and plain yogurt, or adding diced vegetables to your family’s favorite soups or sauces.
5. Give Veggies Some Love
One of the best ways to get kids to eat veggies is to pair them with a favorite dip or seasoning. Revolution Foods has found that students who might not otherwise pick up a carrot stick will do so when served with ranch dip, an Asian-style dressing, or a flavorful seasoning, all of which meet the company’s strict clean label standards.
“How to” at home: This is an easy one to bring home. You can serve virtually any vegetable with a dip (hummus, salsa, salad dressing, or even soy sauce). And a squeeze of lemon or pinch of Parmesan can make all the difference in dressing up cooked vegetables.
6. “Try it Thursday”
Picking a designated day of the week to introduce new menu items has proven to be a successful strategy for Revolution Foods. Kids know to expect something different on Thursdays and that their feedback is valued and taken into consideration. Bay Area school kids get to try items like Veggie Chef’s Salad, Mongolian Beef with Not-So-Fried Rice, and Chili Citrus Chicken Drumstick (which, by the way, I had a chance to sample, and found far tastier than the school lunches I remember eating).
“How to” at home: Consider introducing “Try it Thursday” at home. Bring something new to the table on Thursdays that your kids can try if they want to. It could be as simple as a different variety of apple or as involved as a whole new pasta dish.
7. Make Fridays Fun
Certain dishes just have universal kid appeal. Think pizza, hot dogs, burgers. Revolution Foods includes one of these “slam dunks” every Friday, always with an eye towards nutrition (e.g., whole grain buns and real cheeses). This makes it a particularly popular day for school lunch AND teaches kids there’s room for favorite foods in the context of an overall healthy diet.
“How to” at home: Think about picking a day of the week to serve that one dish that you don’t necessarily make every day, but that you know the kids are crazy about. Then, fill in the rest of the week with plenty of nourishing foods.
8. Be Prepared for Surprises
Just when you think you know what to expect, kids will surprise you. When Revolution Foods introduced gumbo in Louisiana schools, for example, they figured it might go over well. What they didn’t anticipate was how popular it would be in other regions of the country, including here in the Bay Area. Also popular is a jerk chicken dish, which I got a chance to try. Rather than being turned off by the Caribbean spices and brown rice, the kids are apparently digging it.
“How to” at home: While it’s wise to keep familiar foods on the table, it’s also useful to help kids expand their palates by trying something new on occasion. If they don’t like it, that just means lunch leftovers for you. Plus, they just may surprise you.