Mix, match and serve

By Chris Kieffer / NEMS Daily Journal

Those who plan meals for students face a challenging puzzle in planning what a school will serve on a certain day.

On the one hand, they want to serve a healthy meal for children and one that meets a long list of federal and state guidelines for nutrition standards. On the other, they must offer a meal popular enough that students will purchase it.
Food service departments generally operate on a separate budget from the district and must make enough money on sold meals to pay for food, equipment and staff.
“We need participation in the cafeteria because we do receive reimbursement from the government and that is what operates our program,” said Lynne Rogers, director of food services for the Tupelo Public School District. “You need to balance health and find a way to still bring customers.”
The key is marketing. As school food service directors and child nutrition directors prepare for the start of another school year in a couple of weeks, they’ll also prepare for the tricks that can help healthy meals sell successfully.
“The key is eye appeal,” said Susan Killens, child nutrition director for the Lee County School District. “If it doesn’t look appetizing, they won’t pick it up.”
That means putting food on trays properly, making sure it isn’t overcooked and decorating the cafeteria for different seasons, Killens said.
For meals that can be fixed quickly, cafeteria workers will prepare the food in batches so it is fresh out of the oven as each group of students arrives in the cafeteria.
Cafeteria workers also will practice what Killens called “selective selling,” asking kids questions like, “Are you sure you don’t want carrots or corn?”
Rogers said the trick is having good ingredients and using healthy cooking methods, like baking instead of frying. They may try meals like pizza with whole-wheat crust and low-fat cheese and pepperoni, whole-wheat burritos or breaded chicken patties with baked white meat.
“We haven’t really accomplished anything if we put it out there and the students don’t eat it,” she said.
Brenda Massey, food service administrator for the Booneville School District, said sometimes getting students to eat healthy meals can be as simple as choosing the right name.
“It may be baked chicken, but if you call it honey-baked chicken or ranch-baked chicken, they are more likely to pick it up,” Massey said. “Sometimes I will make samples and bring it to them during break time and let them try it, and that might bring more participation.”
While planning menus, food service directors must follow a complicated network of regulations. Each week, elementary school lunches must contain an average of at least 664 calories and high school ones must have at least 825.
Of those, less than 30 percent of the calories can come from total fat and less than 10 percent from saturated fat.
Many directors use computer programs that analyze each day’s menu and determine whether these requirements are being met.
“I recently spent three hours working on one week’s menu,” Massey said. “It lacked 80-something calories so I had to go back in there and change everything. When I did that, it upset the amount of saturated fat. I just worked back and forth and back and forth.”
Those guidelines can often make for weird loopholes. Districts must offer five different categories: meat, bread, fruits, vegetables and milk, and participants must choose at least three different categories.
There are also several extra food items available, but each of them must contain 200 calories or fewer.
By federal regulations, students who don’t buy a school lunch are allowed to buy only three of the extra items: milk, water or ice cream. Killens said Lee County offers slush drinks that contain 100 percent fruit juice, but students are allowed to buy them only with a meal.
That means students who take their lunch are allowed to buy ice cream but not fruit drinks.

Milk for all
Rogers said the federal government will no longer allow students who are lactose intolerant to buy juice instead of milk. Instead, the USDA requires all students who buy school lunches to buy milk because it has more nutrients.
Rogers said the district will offer a milk that has enzymes that help those who struggle to digest milk.
In addition to the federal rules, there are also several state regulations. Rogers said that at a recent conference for school food service directors in Jackson, they were told of several new requirements that are expected to be approved by the state board of education soon.
Those rules will require schools to offer a whole-grain serving three times a week, a good source of Vitamin A three times a week, and fresh fruits and vegetables every day.
Before taking her current job in Booneville in January, Massey had worked in a restaurant and had done catering. She said planning school lunches has been a lot more complicated than those jobs.
She said she’s learned much from talking to other food service directors and asking how they plan their menus.
“You have to keep playing with it until you finally figure out the right formula to make everything work,” she said.

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@djournal.com.

Food for thought: Armed with knowledge, parents and students can make better choices in cafeterias and at home.

In the near future, they’ll begin to incorporate whole grains and low-sodium items into cafeteria fare.
The bad news is parents aren’t doing a very good job at home of packing healthy lunches for the kids who like to brown-bag it. They also aren’t setting good examples at the dinner table.
“Last fall, I was a teacher’s assistant in a kindergarten class, so I saw sack lunches versus cafeteria lunches,” said Brenda Massey, director of food services for the Booneville School District. “You’d be amazed at the sack lunches full of sugar. I’m talking really unhealthy stuff.”

What’s good
Often, parents think that because a food carries a label with the word “fruit” on it, it’s something good, said Leanne Davis, a registered dietitian at the North Mississippi Medical Center’s Wellness Center.
“Fruit chews, Fruit Roll-Ups, Strawberry Pop-Tarts, Capri-Sun Fruit Drinks, sweetened applesauce – these are not real fruits,” said Davis. “If it doesn’t say 100 percent fruit juice or if it has added sugar, it doesn’t count.”
So what’s a parent to do?
“Think about the Food Guide Pyramid,” said Davis. “Look at that pyramid and see what you could put in that lunch box. Could you get a whole grain, a piece of fruit, a veggie, some protein and a little bit of fat? When I’m building a lunch box, I’m trying to think color, variety and texture.”
For instance, you might put a tablespoon of peanut butter on a whole wheat tortilla, top it with a sliced banana and roll it up. Put a small bag of pretzels with that and buy a carton of milk in the cafeteria and you’re good to go.
For the non-meat eater, you could pack 2 percent cheese cubes, grapes, pretzels, a granola bar and a bottle of water.
Or how about a salad made with spring greens, grilled chicken, black beans, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers and carrots?
“Make it as colorful as you can,” she said. “Put the dressing on the side and add a piece of fruit to round it out.”
Davis warned parents not to cram too much food into younger children’s sack lunches.
“A second-grader only needs half of a sandwich,” she said. “He only needs one or two ounces of sliced turkey, a half-slice of cheese, a half-cup of fruit and maybe a couple of carrots. You don’t want to overwhelm the little ones, but you do want to make sure the older ones have enough.”
For older students and especially athletes, tucking an extra piece of fruit or a granola bar in the lunch box for an afternoon snack is also a good idea, Davis said.

‘All foods can fit’
What about those parents who don’t have the time, energy or desire to pack school lunches?
That’s where the school cafeteria comes in.
“We have worked so hard to find innovative ways to prepare meals so that students can still have their favorite foods but also make healthy choices,” said Lynne Rogers, director of food service for the Tupelo Public School District.
“My motto is, ‘All foods can fit,’” she said. “If a child wants to select french fries, he should be able to put a meal together that incorporates french fries.”
By the way, those french fries are baked, as are potato rounds, steak fingers and fried chicken.
“I think parents need to know what we’re doing, how we’re preparing our foods and the ingredients we’re using,” she said.
So, if that student chooses those french fries, maybe he could pick up the grilled chicken sandwich with tomatoes and lettuce on a whole grain bun to go with them instead of the taco supreme.
If he adds a fresh fruit cup and a carton of milk, he’s got a healthy meal.
Each lunch meal offered in the cafeteria has five components: milk, meat, fruit, vegetables and bread. Every day, students are given a choice of 1 percent plain milk or .5 percent flavored milk; two meat choices; two fruit choices; two vegetable choices; and one or two bread choices.
The student may choose as many as five components, but must have a minimum of three.
“Servers encourage them to have all five,” Rogers said. “But it’s not the same as counting the number of items on a tray. For instance, pizza is a meat and a bread. So a student could choose pizza and a carton of milk and be compliant. But we’d rather them go back and see if they could pick one or two more items they might like.”

Lessons begin at home
Massey fears that one reason students tend to make less than desirable choices in the cafeteria is because they’re not learning to eat healthfully at home.
“Normally, the children won’t pick up a whole wheat roll or a whole grain roll because that’s not what they’re used to,” she said. “They’ve got to learn that at home or at least be guided that way.”
And the cafeteria can prepare healthy breakfasts and lunches all day long, but if parents aren’t doing the same in the evenings, students will get mixed messages.
“We have people who pick their kids up from school at 3 o’clock and head to McDonald’s for a snack or they’ll grab a pizza on the way to the ball game,” Massey said. “We have to start at home for this to work. School lunches aren’t the problem with childhood obesity. The meals they eat at home are the problem.”
Parents that need help with meal planning can go to kraftfoods.com for recipes and mypyramid.gov for pyramid guidelines for healthy eating.
And they can visit school websites to see what menus look like for the week, both for meal ideas and to help students make good choices.
“The school website is a good way for them to sit down and educate children,” Rogers said. “They can gently encourage them to make better choices. If they want a hamburger entree, then encourage them to get a banana. This can begin at an early age. They’re never too young to learn healthy habits.”

Contact Ginna Parsons at 678-1581 or ginna.parsons@djournal.com.

packing healthy lunches for the kids
who like to brown-bag it. They also
aren’t setting good examples at the
dinner table.
“Last fall, I was a teacher’s assis-
tant in a kindergarten class, so I saw
sack lunches versus cafeteria lunch-
es,” said Brenda Massey, director of
food services for the Booneville
School District. “You’d be amazed at
the sack lunches full of sugar. I’m
talking really unhealthy stuff.”
What’s good
Often, parents think that because
a food carries a label with the word
“fruit” on it, it’s something good,
said Leanne Davis, a registered di-
etitian at the North Mississippi
Medical Center’s Wellness Center.
“Fruit chews, Fruit Roll-Ups,
Strawberry Pop-Tarts, Capri-Sun
Fruit Drinks, sweetened applesauce
– these are not real fruits,” said
Davis. “If it doesn’t say 100 percent
fruit juice or if it has added sugar, it
doesn’t count.”
So what’s a parent to do?
fat? When I’m building a lunch box,
I’m trying to think color, variety and
texture.”
For instance, you might put a ta-
blespoon of peanut butter on a
whole wheat tortilla, top it with a
sliced banana and roll it up. Put a
small bag of pretzels with that and
buy a carton of milk in the cafeteria
and you’re good to go.
For the non-meat eater, you
could pack 2 percent cheese cubes,
grapes, pretzels, a granola bar and a
bottle of water.
Or how about a salad made with
spring greens, grilled chicken, black
beans, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers
and carrots?
“Make it as colorful as you can,”
she said. “Put the dressing on the
side and add a piece of fruit to
round it out.”
Davis warned parents not to cram
too much food into younger chil-
dren’s sack lunches.
“A second-grader only needs half
of a sandwich,” she said. “He only
needs one or two ounces of sliced
For older students and especially
athletes, tucking an extra piece of
fruit or a granola bar in the lunch
box for an afternoon snack is also a
good idea, Davis said.
‘All foods can fit’
What about those parents who
don’t have the time, energy or desire
to pack school lunches?
That’s where the school cafeteria
comes in.
“We have worked so hard to find
innovative ways to prepare meals so
that students can still have their fa-
vorite foods but also make healthy
choices,” said Lynne Rogers, direc-
tor of food service for the Tupelo
Public School District.
“My motto is, ‘All foods can fit,’”
she said. “If a child wants to select
french fries, he should be able to
put a meal together that incorpo-
rates french fries.”
By the way, those french fries are
baked, as are potato rounds, steak
fingers and fried chicken.

SAMPLE MENU FOR TPSD
■ MONDAY: Soft or crispy taco supreme or chef salad with crackers;
baked spicy fries or vegetable beef soup; mandarin oranges and cherries
or fruit juice; chocolate or vanilla pudding with topping; milk. (Good
choice is chef salad with crackers, vegetable soup, mandarin oranges
and cherries and milk.)
■ TUESDAY: Corn dog nuggets (preK-2), corn dog (3-6) or cheesy
chicken over rice; seasoned Southern greens or baked potato; chilled
peaches, blushing pears or fruit juice; milk. (Good choice is cheesy
chicken over rice, greens, chilled peaches or pears and milk.)
■ WEDNESDAY: Spaghetti with Italian meat sauce or barbecue pulled
pork sub sandwich; yeast roll; glazed yams or cheesy broccoli bites;
fresh apple wedges, chilled mixed fruit or fruit juice; milk. (Good choice
is spaghetti, roll, yams, apple wedges and milk.)
■ THURSDAY: Stuffed crust or cheese pizza or chicken fajita nachos
with salsa cup; baked potato rounds or fresh vegetables with ranch dip;
pineapple and kiwi, fresh banana or fruit juice; strawberry fruited gelatin;
milk. (Good choice is nachos with salsa, fresh veggies, banana and
milk.)
■ FRIDAY: Crispy baked chicken sandwich or grilled cheese sandwich
with beef ravioli; garden salad with fat-free dressing or whole kernel
corn; banana berry blend, fresh orange smiles or fruit juice; milk. (Good
choice is chicken sandwich, salad, fresh orange smiles and milk.)