How to get kids to embrace unfamiliar food

14 Feb How to get kids to embrace unfamiliar food

To anyone who is looking to make their cafeteria food healthier: You can’t change your school’s menu without changing your leadership strategy, too.

Folks will often try, with the best intentions, to serve healthier meal options without engaging students or their target customers first. And without this critical piece in place, students won’t end up connecting with the food.

We’ve seen it time and time again: When education, engagement and consistent messaging don’t keep pace with menu changes, students lose interest. Take this New York healthy school food program pilot as example.

By contrast, student participation has held strong in the school cafeterias in Lincoln, Ill., where we focus on connecting classroom education to the cafeteria. We use the student voice to create the menus, and we start with food that kids want to eat. We work really hard along the way to teach cooks how to make healthy food taste good. We don’t serve kale chips and garbanzo beans right off the bat; we sprinkle them in and transition typical, processed dishes out. In come the local, fresh, handmade burgers; out go the frozen, chemically processed patties. Out go the canned sauces; in come the delicious, homemade ones. And so on.

Once we build trust with kid favorites, then we start to expand slowly into more innovative dishes like, say, vegan curry.

Speaking of vegan food, we have found delicious vegan and vegetarian meals to not only be huge hits in the cafeterias — even the die-hard meat lovers at Kona Community Hospital love the delicious vegan options we help the hospital café to serve — but these ingredients are also advantageous to our health, environment, and better for the bottom line.

Educating customers about the food they’re eating also helps students to buy-in to healthy foods. A garden onsite can be a great learning and engagement tool; so can bringing educators and other school officials on-board to help champion healthy eating. Cooking classes for parents, connecting schools to the farms that produce the food kids eat and other strategies to bond students to their food all go a long way in helping kids and other customers embrace different and healthy cafeteria menus.

In the end, it takes hard work to change kids’ palates. Getting them to readily eat new, unfamiliar food won’t happen overnight — but education, communication and engagement will definitely help.

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