Creating menus students want to eat

Mark Stower, Director of Food & Service at Harrison Catering Services, on how to make nutritious menus appeal to students

Every school catering service, whether managed in-house or by a contract caterer, wants to feed its students well by providing nutritious, balanced meals. But students can only benefit from good nutrition if they actually choose to eat the healthier foods on offer. While independent schools, particularly those with boarders, have more of a captive audience for their food service, with fewer options to go off-site for food, students still have choices when they visit their dining facility.

So how do caterers create menus that are nutritious, but still attractive to children and young people? 

First and foremost — and all too easy to forget during the menu development process — is gaining student input. Giving students a voice and incorporating their suggestions is simply the best way to ensure you are providing a menu of choices that they want to eat. There are a variety of ways to elicit student feedback, including meeting regularly with student council representatives, using surveys and comment cards and hosting tasting sessions for new dishes. You can even consider launching a dedicated food council or working group to provide a regular forum for students to discuss the menu and foodservice with your catering team. 

Student recipe competitions are another great way to get young people excited about the food offer and to gather their ideas. The catering team can select several dishes as ‘finalists’ — even inviting the student cooks into the kitchen to prepare their recipes themselves — and then feature them on the menu. Students can them sample the dishes and vote for their favourite, with the winning dish added permanently to the menu. 

Asking students what they want does not mean you suddenly serve a menu full of burgers, pizza and chips. Your catering team will need to review the suggestions and use their culinary knowledge and skill to incorporate them into the menu in a way that maintains nutritional balance. Going back to the recipe and looking at how a dish can be made healthier through ingredient selection and preparation methods is key to this. 

For example, if wraps are popular, base them on healthy ingredients, such as poultry and loads of vegetables and pulses, but make them exciting and delicious with the addition of spices and fresh herbs. Lentils and other vegetables can easily be incorporated into pizza sauces to make them more nutritious and the dish can be given a healthier profile by making the dough using 25- 50% wholemeal flour and using mature Cheddar cheese with a stronger flavour, which means you can use about 25% less than if using mild Cheddar, therefore helping to reduce fat content. Popular desserts can be given healthier profiles too by using oats and wholemeal flour to boost fibre content when making crumbles and by avoiding too many creamy desserts and experimenting with Greek yoghurt instead. No doubt your catering team will have many more ideas for making favourite dishes healthier. 

The fact that children and young people today are well-travelled and used to eating out in restaurants should also be kept in mind. Most students have experienced a broad range of international cuisines and know a lot about food. To keep them satisfied, your menus must keep pace with current trends and offer authentic dishes with exciting flavours — yet another reason to ask your young customers what they want to eat. 

When you do make a change to the menu, it pays to let the students know this is the result of their feedback and to give the new dish or dishes a trial period where you gather further feedback. 

When students see that their ideas and suggestions are being heard and put into action, it has a powerful effect, increasing their buy-in to the foodservice and making them more open to other changes in the menu. It also builds their trust in the catering team, making it easier to introduce healthier food options and encourage the students to try them. From this strong foundation, your team can continually develop the menu to ensure it delivers the good nutrition vital to support students’ performance in the classroom and beyond.

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