Remember your school lunch? A pizza square and mixed fruit? Fishwich and stewed tomatoes? You probably had one choice each day, and if you didn’t like it, you ate peanut butter and jelly.
How about a fresh salad bar, made-to-order deli bar, smoothies and yogurt parfaits? How about an a la carte line? Baja fish tacos or popcorn chicken, anyone?
Between the tendency of more families traveling and the abundance of restaurants offering various cuisines, today’s students are exposed to more foods and flavors than those of a generation ago, and that is reflected in modern school lunches.
Some of our school districts shared their thoughts on the evolution of school lunches and what their students seem to like the most.
“I have been in school food service for over 30 years. The biggest change I see is choices, particularly at the secondary level,” said Sharon Adami, food service director at Milton Area School District.
Two other big changes: Food preparation and delivery.
“Food now is prepared healthier and purchased healthier, with more fresh produce, some due to regulations and some due to kids and families in general becoming more health conscious,” Adami said.
With the changing landscape of high school — students attending cyber school, college courses, work study, etc. — sometimes it’s tough to get to the cafeteria, so the cafeteria goes to the students.
“Kids either come to the cafeteria or go to the library prior to the start of the day, so it is an alternative site for feeding. A lot of schools are putting kiosks in the hallways and providing additional spots to get kids to eat a healthy breakfast,” Adami said. “At the elementary level, we started breakfast in the classroom free to all students last school year. It has been extremely successful in getting the elementary students to eat a healthy breakfast to start their day.”
The “tried and true” grilled cheese, hot dog and macaroni and cheese are all still around, but more health conscious.
“We are preparing them using healthier methods like serving the hot dog on a whole grain bun, cutting down on the fat in the mac and cheese, baking fries instead of deep frying them, not buttering our steamed vegetables,” Adami said. “All this helps to provide a healthier venue for our kids while still offering them some of their favorite foods.”
Top elementary meals inlcude chicken nuggets, breakfast for lunch (French toast/sausage) and max cheese sticks with sauce to dip. Secondary: Tacos, Asian chicken, max cheese sticks, pizza and rotini.
“While I agree that kids are often exposed to different types of foods, we find that success of school lunches hinges on how familiar the food is to the masses,” said John Rosselli, food service director at Midd-West School District. “For example, one of our more popular entrées is popcorn chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy. It’s familiar to them based on fast food offerings, and as a comfort food for students and adults alike.”
Attempts at other options, such as chicken teriyaki with rice and vegetables, are often passed over, possibly because students don’t get as exposed to other types of cuisine as might be expected.
“We will try around three to four ‘new’ dishes per school year and depending on how ‘out of the box’ they are, we see varying levels of success,” Rosselli said. “We do sell a good amount of yogurt/granola combos and while we don’t have strictly vegetarian options, we do offer either a salad bar or premade chef salads to both students and staff. If a need/desire for a vegetarian menu became necessary, and it was cost effective, we would certainly work with the students in developing it.”
Midd-West offers at least two main entrees per day, often three or more.
“We offer deli sandwiches, PBJ sandwiches, soups, and we try to utilize fresh fruits and veggies as much as possible,” Rosselli said.
Top meals include popcorn chicken/mashed potatoes, pizza, stromboli and walking tacos.
“School lunches have evolved tremendously in the last 30 to 40 years,” said Jamie Shiko, food service director at Line Mountain School District. “We not only feature a wide variety of fresh homestyle food — such as homemade macaroni & cheese, lasagna, roast turkey & filling, meatloaf and chicken & waffles — we also offer a made-to-order deli bar where students can craft their own hoagie, sandwich or wrap from our fresh ingredients. There is also a fresh garden bar with over 20 toppings to create a delicious, healthy salad, a featured homemade soup prepared daily, oven-fresh pizzeria style pizza, crispy chicken patties, grilled chicken sandwiches, juicy cheeseburgers and a hot specialty sandwich, such as our popular French onion chicken sandwich.
“We also offer peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, yogurt parfaits and fruit smoothies daily. They also have many fresh fruit and vegetable choices such as fresh watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, plums, grapes, strawberries, peaches, nectarines, pears, apples, bananas, oranges, baby carrots, celery sticks, grape tomatoes, broccoli florets, cucumber slices, pepper strips and side salads.”
Top meals include breakfast for lunch (French toast sticks, sausage patties, tater tots), popcorn chicken bowl (breaded popcorn chicken with mashed potatoes/gravy, corn), chicken & waffles with mashed potatoes/gravy and tacos.
Mount Carmel elementary schools offer a hot main entree option and alternate option, a sandwich of the week, salad and peanut butter and jelly daily. Every day, their high school offers a hot main entree and alternate entree, fresh-baked pizza, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, chicken patties, hoagies, wraps, peanut butter and jelly, fruit and yogurt parfaits and bistro boxes, said Mary Hinkle, director of food service for the nutrition group at Mount Carmel Area School District..
“In addition to those choices, we also have a made-to-order deli bar and a salad bar,” Hinkle said. “To go along with our entrees, daily at both schools we offer a hot vegetable choice, many fresh vegetables such as baby carrots, celery and cucumbers, several canned and fresh fruit options such as peaches, strawberries, blueberries, apples and bananas, and a choice of either 1-percent white milk or fat free flavored milk.
“In addition to our yogurt parfaits, peanut butter and jelly, and salad bar, we offer several vegetarian bistro box selections that contain hummus, cottage cheese, or egg and cheese. We also have black bean burgers and vegetarian meatballs available that we can prepare if requested in advance.”
Ethnic menu entrees include Mexican bowl, nacho grande, walking taco, chicken and vegetable stir-fry, orange kissed chicken bowl, pasta and meatballs, chicken parmesan and Greek beef gyros.
Top meals include chicken and waffles, Mexican bowl and popcorn chicken bowl.
“School lunch isn’t what you remember anymore,” said Sherry Eichelberger, director of food service for the nutrition group at Shamokin Area School District. “It’s fun, exciting, creative and most of all, nutritious, with recipes such as homemade mac and cheese, chicken and waffles, tacos with fiesta rice, Southern style turkey pot roast with mashed potatoes, and a fun sweet and spicy BBQ chicken bowl. The possibilities and selections are endless.
“At Shamokin, we are CEP. That stands for Community Eligibility Provision, which means free breakfast and lunch for all students. We are proud to offer this to our community and hope that we are making a difference in the lives of our students.”
At the high school, food services offers a main option of the day, three different types of homemade, fresh-baked pizza and a made-to-order deli bar with several meat, cheese and bread choices. A grill line offers a variety of hot sandwiches and casseroles.
“Additionally, we offer fresh salads, fruit and yogurt parfaits, a large a la carte selection and, to top it off, a beautiful selection of fresh fruits and vegetables,” Eichelberger said.
At the elementary level, the school offers a main item each day “centered around the growing taste buds of our little ones,” she said.
Food services introduces the children to new foods while keeping their attention with favorites such as homemade pizza, popcorn chicken bowls and breakfast for lunch.
“We also offer a daily hot alternate and several cold alternates as well,” Eichelberger said. “Freshly made salads, sandwiches and fruit and yogurt parfaits are some of the favorites we offer daily. Fresh, colorful and delicious fruits and veggies are prepared daily for our little ones.
“As you can see we, take a lot of pride in our food program and are truly excited each day for the privilege to provide nutritious, fun and innovative food choices to our students.”
Top meals include popcorn chicken bowl, breakfast for lunch, tacos/nachos, chicken and waffles and sweet & spicy BBQ chicken bowl.
Selinsgrove, Lewisburg, SUN Tech
“School food service has changed a lot in the 28 years that I have been a director,” said Kevin Oswald, director of food services for both the Selinsgrove and Lewisburg Area school districts, along with the SUN Career and Technology Center, in New Berlin. “Some of the premises remain the same, such as offering a five-component meal, (protein, vegetable, fruit, grain, milk), local fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain bread, rolls, whole grain pizza crusts, low fat or fat free milk, etc.”
One of the big changes over the years is the variety of food items offered at the secondary schools, Oswald said.
“For example, Lewisburg High School’s new kitchen offers a deli line, a homemade pizza line, a grill line of hot sandwiches and baked, not deep fat-fried, French fries, a five-component meal line, a beverage area and a full salad bar with homemade soup and, of course, a rack or two of a variety of a la carte items. It’s really amazing what we offer to high school students when the cost of a lunch is in the $2.70 to $2.80 range.”
Top secondary school meals include pizza, chicken nuggets, popcorn chicken bowl (like KFC serves), homemade lasagna, hoagies, tacos and chicken parmesan. Top elementary meals include burgers, hot dogs, nuggets and hoagies.
“Things have changed in the options offered to students,” said Matthew Mitchell, director of food services at Shikellamy Area School District. “We now have five daily choices for our elementary students. Back in my day we only had one option (that was 50 years ago). Not to mention we only were offered chocolate milk once a week compared to today when it is a daily offering. And yes, it is fat free chocolate milk.”
At the secondary level, students have seven daily lunch options.
“We try and offer a variety of choices, and we do offer a daily salad bar to our students. This may include food items such as legumes, spinach and romaine with iceberg lettuce as well as other items which vary daily,” Mitchell said. “We do offer yogurt daily and other items on the salad bar for our students that are vegetarians. As far as ethnic foods, we offer tacos and Asian chicken. We do listen to the students and try to offer foods that they are now more accustomed to, such as a Buffalo pizza, as opposed to a plain pizza.”
Some of the staple items, like peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, toasted cheese sandwiches with tomato soup and school-made soup are still popular, Mitchell said, but not like the walking taco or the popcorn chicken bowl.
“Today there is such a variety it is like a dining out option,” Mitchell said. “Even the appearances of cafeterias have changed to be a more inviting atmosphere.”
He listed other new features, like salad bars and condiment areas, open seating as opposed to assigned seats, bottled water and other drink items (within regulations).
“One other note I think that needs mention is that we now serve breakfast,” Mitchell said, “and some schools provide dinner meals to students and provide food bags to those who request it for the weekends.”
Top meals include popcorn chicken bowl, walking taco and breakfast for lunch (French toast with sausage).
“School lunches have changed and we find that we must stay on top of retail food trends more than ever in order to meet student expectations and ensure participation in our meal programs,” said Beth Hufnagel, FSD RD LDN. “This includes serving a wide variety of trendy breakfast and lunch options daily at both elementary and secondary school levels.”
Multiple choices are served each day at all school levels, Hufnagel said.
“While some of the ‘old stand-bys’ are still popular (i.e., macaroni and cheese, pasta), we find they are even better accepted by adding a new flavor profile,” she said. “Macaroni and cheese at the secondary level is offered as Buffalo chicken mac & cheese. A pasta example is Chicken Alfredo with a Twist. Asian-inspired lunches such as General Tso’s chicken & rice with an egg roll and Mexican lunch fare including tacos and nachos are popular as well.”
Grab-and-go salad options, yogurt parfaits and elementary school “Lunch Munchables” are also popular student lunch choices, Hufnagel said. Vegetarian options are slowly growing in popularity.
“Variety, choice and customization are driving forces in keeping our meal programs on trend with today’s food savvy students,” Hufnagel said.
Top meals include popcorn chicken bowl, breakfast for lunch and walking tacos.