Menu Planning the Beyond Green Partners Way

19 Jun Menu Planning the Beyond Green Partners Way

One day in the future all schools will take responsibility for their student’s health by serving scratch-cooked food grown in the community. Frozen, canned, and boxed food will be replaced with raw, whole ingredients. Warmers will be replaced with braziers. Culinary training will replace business as usual.

The right school lunch provides fuel for the brain and body. By focusing on menu development, we are looking at how to best meet the nutritional needs of our students. Eating nutritious food is linked to their academic success; specifically, in higher grades and standardized test scores, reduced absenteeism and improved cognitive performance. In schools where Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners (BGP) worked with a kitchen team to transition from a processed food menu to a scratch cooked, local food menu, students and staff have self-reported losing weight, having more energy for their day, and developing a sense of appreciation and love of food and the people who work hard to put a meal on the table.

To plan menus, BGP converges what students want to eat, what the cafeteria staff want to cook, and what products are available from local farms.

Learning what students want to eat comes from both written surveys and verbal conversations, as well as taste testing menu items. Start with a sample survey provided in the May 2018 newsletter. At the same time, visit as many classrooms as the school will allow and ask students the following questions:

  • What do you like about the food served at school? What don’t you like?
  • What meals do you like? What do you like about them?
  • What meals don’t you like? What don’t you like about them?
  • If you had a magic wand what would you want to see in the cafeteria?

Students often start out with their wildest dreams and may ask for such menu items as prime rib, lobster, ice cream, or foods that are not within the USDA guidelines. Acknowledge these ideas and keep asking to hear what else they want. When their suggestions are taken seriously, students tend to dig deep, and the ideas begin to popcorn when the room sees they have a voice.

Use the same process to find out what staff want to make. Unfortunately, many cafeteria workers are not accustomed to being asked their opinion, so it may take some time to tease ideas from them. If your cafeteria team has some veteran employees who have worked in the kitchen for a decade or longer, they likely remember cooking from scratch at the beginning of their career. Asking what they made and whether they would like to make some of those items again helps newer staff members see what is possible, and they may gain confidence to offer their suggestions. We use the same line of questions with the staff as provided in the bullet list above.

Finding out what students and staff want to eat and cook requires frequent inquiry into their preferences. It’s not enough to ask once and consider your questions answered. BGP inquires as to what is working and not working about the menu on a monthly basis and introduces new menu items every 2 to 3 months with taste tests.

Once you have gathered enough information to come up with a list of possible new menu items, taste test the dishes with students. Taste testing involves making small quantities of the items and sampling the food in the classroom. Ask students for their feedback and make the food again and again until both cooks and eaters agree the dish works. Shoot for a minimum satisfaction rate of 80 percent. The USDA shares resources on how to develop, implement, and evaluate a taste test event.

Taste testing is a chance to take risks. It’s okay to not know how you will make 500 or 2000 of the item you are taste testing when you conduct the taste test. Try very hard not to limit yourself in taste tests and do not promise the students you will be using any of the dishes in the final menu. In addition to finding out what students like and giving them a voice, the taste testing process allows the cooks to practice making the new menu item.

Once you select the items you want to serve we suggest that you distribute them in weekly menus and use a rating to balance them out according to these three factors:

  • Likability: Not all items will be a homerun. Some students will like certain items, other students will like others. We rate daily menus based on majority as green (high likability), orange (medium likability), red (low likability).
  • Effort: Certain items require more effort – time, skills, and staff working together than others. We use a comparative rating system for to determine effort with 1 equaling the lowest effort day and 5 equaling the highest effort day.
  • Cost: The cost of items varies. We recommend that you cost out every item you plan to serve. We offer some examples in Chapter 12. We rate L for low cost, M for medium cost, and H for high cost.

We advise that you do not serve items that score high in all three categories – red, 5, and H – next to each other but that you spread them out throughout the week and cycle.

The menu below is example of how we conduct this process. All food is considered to be made from scratch, including hand-breading the chicken fingers, kneading the pizza dough, and hand-making the burger patties.


Day: Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
Meal: Baked Chicken Fingers

with Ranch Dressing

on Shredded Cabbage

with Steamed Rice

Broccoli & Carrots

Fresh Fruit


Beef Stew

with Steamed Rice

Steamed Broccoli


Pepperoni Pizza

Caesar Salad

Fresh Fruit



with Salsa & Sour Cream Fresh Greens

Fresh Fruit


Hamburger on bun

Lettuce & Tomato

Fresh Fruit


Rating: Green, 5, M Orange, 2, H Green, 4, L Green, 1, L Green, 3, H


With the steps outlined above, you are on your way to improving the health of your students and employees while creating smooth kitchen operations within budget and reducing plate waste by serving food that kids want to eat. And you’ve generated wins for the students, staff, farmers, and community.

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