Brent T. Frei 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Take steps to ensure that school menus and meals regularly engage all five senses. It’s lunchtime on a cold, mid- January day at Pawling High School in Pawling, N.Y., and students encounter an unusual situation as they enter the cafeteria. On one side of the line are the much-loved chicken patties and pizza. On the other is an array of vibrant chopped vegetables and citrus slices, strips of cooked chicken breast and a squeeze bottle filled with a caramel-colored liquid, all arranged within arm’s reach of an induction burner and sauté pan. And behind the portable cooking equipment is a chef in professional whites and tall hat. Two options. One leading to favorite, familiar foods that can be enjoyed immediately. One that’s foreign and out of place, offering nothing to just grab and go. Not to mention there’s a stranger behind the line, adding to the mystique. Which to choose? In this experiment, allowed by Pawling Central School District Foodservice Director Janice Traynor-Hack, a big influencer is that the stir-fry line features activity. The chef drizzles a little oil into the hot pan, adds the chicken, broccoli florets, chopped onion and celery and slices of mandarin orange and starts tossing them into the air, deftly catching them as they drop back to the pan. A splash of water to deglaze and pick up the flavorful caramelized bits of meat and vegetable erupts in a steamy, aromatic sizzle before a simple sauce of orange juice, soy sauce and a little corn starch squirts over the medley and gets blended in. The stir-fry that moments earlier was merely an idea not only is suddenly ready to eat, but smells delightful. And the bit of live theater makes this atypical lunch option that much more intriguing. Pawling High typically serves 120 hot lunches each day; that total jumped to 135 the day of the demo—and only a small minority of selected meals featured the chicken patties or pizza. Why was the stir-fry so overwhelmingly popular? Because the dish and the act of creating it appealed to all five human senses—sight, smell, sound, taste and “touch” (texture/mouth feel)—to convey the irresistible power of “fresh,” explained the chef behind it, Rico Griffone, representing the nearby Culinary Institute of America as consultant to the CIA’s new Menu for Healthy Kids website (http:// healthykids.ciachef.edu). And Griffone would argue that the activity appealed to an additional sixth sense, too. But more on that a little later. Beyond Taste When menu planners, cooks/chefs, product engineers and others work to develop and offer foods, beverages and meals that will appeal to kids, appearance, flavor and texture get the lion’s share of attention, as well they should. “We all eat with our eyes first,” asserts Michelle Curry, SNS, a classically trained chef and director of food and nutrition for South Pasadena (Calif.) Unified School District. But successful school nutrition operators understand that appealing to all five senses can have a direct impact on the success of their programs. That’s why they make a point to ensure that foods are prepared and presented in a variety of ways, upping the odds that there’s something that every child will eat. After all, “Our goal is to feed the kids,” says Timothy Cipriano, chef and executive director of foodservices for New Haven (Conn.) Public Schools, which feeds more than 20,000 students, 85% of whom receive free or reduced-price meals. “We have hungry kids and want to make sure each is getting the most nutritious meal.” Sensory appeal is among the weapons in Cipriano’s arsenal, and it’s a critical factor in his team’s battle to ensure kids don’t go without, get a critical nutrition boost and enjoy what they eat. The visual power inherent in colorful fresh produce, grains, beans and legumes, cheeses, herbs, condiments, etc., is a given. Everyone in school nutrition understands that, and it’s supported by federal guidelines that now require a veritable rainbow of colors in school meals, from dark leafy greens to bright red and orange vegetables and fruits and even the brown and tan of whole grains. Nutrition, portion size and taste are all factors in designing school menus; but while roast turkey served with mashed potatoes, gravy and applesauce might be delicious and nutritious, its monochrome palette could work against you. Visual appeal needs to be a consideration when developing menu offerings. Presentation techniques, including simple garnishes, can go a long way in attracting the eye. The manner in which items are arranged along the serving line also makes a difference—even at a serve-yourself station. For example, sliced black olives and black beans—or chopped red bell pepper and sliced tomatoes—will stand out more when they’re separated by a food of a strikingly different color. Positive presentation also is conveyed through merchandising/packaging. For instance, to enhance the visual appeal of food beyond the food itself, Kern Halls, assistant director/chef and area manager for Orange County (Fla.) Public Schools, replaced white trays with black ones; the simple switch means that foods of virtually any color are guaranteed to pop in contrast. “Spending a penny more on that tray produces a lot more in sales, and it’s not so sterile looking,” Halls explains. The school nutrition team at Minneapolis Public Schools continues to seek new ways to boost the visual perception of meals distributed from its Nutrition Center central production facility to 52 K-3, K-5 and K-8 schools. The operation is shifting from the use of individual prepackaged meals toward bulk steamtable-pan service. According to Ricardo Abbott, Nutrition Center operations manager, preparation of the menu items will be the same, but service from pans will better convey a “homemade” sensibility, while allowing the operation to offer greater menu variety. Our eating choices also are influenced by what we smell. Aroma isn’t only communicated by a hot casserole served on the tray, but also via the smells of cooking or baking that permeate the air throughout a building before lunchtime even begins. At Fayette (Ark.) Public Schools, each of the nine elementary, two middle and two junior-high schools in the district maintains an individual garden, and garlic grown there is roasted on Spaghetti Day, so that its intoxicating aroma, along with the fresh herbs cooking in the tomato sauce, gets kids’ mouths watering well in advance of lunchtime. For children, “Texture is a big thing,” says Cipriano. “I have a 6-year-old who likes the taste of almost everything, but it has to have real crunch if it’s supposed to be crunchy; be smooth if it’s supposed to be smooth. Anywhere in-between that it’s not supposed to be, and the kid won’t eat it.” Mouth feel also applies to temperature, which is why a pet peeve of Curry‘s is ensuring that hot menu items are served hot, and cold foods cold. But the influence of texture in food goes beyond mouth feel. “So many kids eat with their hands,” says Catharine Powers, MS, RD, a partner with Culinary Nutrition Associates based in Medina, Ohio, and co-author of Essentials of Nutrition for Chefs. Powers consults for school districts across the country. “Kids like bite-sized things. You’ll go to a cafeteria and see these beautiful bowls of Red Delicious apples and oranges and rock-hard pears, and no one wants them. It’s not that kids don’t like them, but how is a 2nd-grader going to peel and eat an orange in the little amount of time [allowed] for lunch?,” Powers asks. “They don’t want to get their hands sticky and, they don’t have that skill.” She recalls being thrilled to learn her own son was served an apple on his first day of kindergarten, but quickly dismayed when she learned he left it behind, because his small teeth couldn’t bite into it. If there’s one sense that might get overlooked in its influence on food choices, it’s probably sound. But think about some of the restaurants that attract you: There is energy and excitement in the sounds of dishes clattering, foods sizzling, the chop-chop of a knife against a cutting board, ice tinkling, laughter and conversation. A positive feeling also comes from a noisy school cafeteria. “If you have a cafeteria that sounds busy, and people are moving around, it means that you are doing things right and you have customers,” says Minneapolis’ Ricardo Abbott. Scratch vs. Speed Scratch vs. No Scratch Conventional wisdom—at least that of many operators with culinary training—asserts that all of our senses are heightened when foods are prepared from scratch, rather than merely heated and served. It’s an attitude that is driving a return to scratch cooking at many school districts across the country. When Adam Simmons, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America and a former resort chef in Aspen, Colo., took over as child nutrition director at Fayetteville Public Schools three years ago, he identified the main ingredient in each food and menu item, so he could source the least processed option at the best cost. “We don’t buy frozen burritos anymore, but roll our own now,” he cites. “We do some in the back and some in front of the students, just so they can see something being prepared on the front line. It’s changed the appeal and anticipation of that product.” Indeed, Simmons reduced his inventory of convenience added products from 80% to 50%, and today the menu relies more on scratch-prepped items, which he believes amplifies favorable perceptions by all the senses. In Orange County, Kern Halls understands how all five senses play roles in creating appeal for the 175,000 students in his urban central Florida district, at which free and reduced-price meal eligibility is 57%. Scratch simply isn’t practical at that volume. But “speed scratch”—a term coined in 1992 by a Springfield, Mo.-based food-marketing agency to refer to the convenience value added to a product to remove at least some of the labor—is a technique applied strategically. For example, to add healthy crunch to a fish taco, Halls and his team add crisp coleslaw made with pre-shredded cabbage. And in response to a focus group comprised of representatives from the district’s large percentage of students from the Caribbean and Latin America, Halls started purchasing chicken as eight-cut fryers. “They tell us that if we’re going to have chicken, we have to have ‘real’ chicken, which has a bone in it,” he explains. That chicken might come from a food manufacturer or processor already roasted or slathered in barbecue sauce, but for students from these cultures, the presence of a bone means the chicken is “authentic.” Nothing served in New Haven Public Schools is prepared completely from scratch, but that doesn’t bother Tim Cipriano, a chef who learned his trade via the school of hard knocks. For a heat-and-serve vegetarian lasagna that “didn’t look right to the kids,” Cipriano worked with the manufacturer to reduce the amount of cheese used, so that his staff could top the dish with lowfat mozzarella before baking. The cost worked out the same, and the result was a speed-scratch lasagna with a homemade look and taste that Cipriano’s student customers love. Whether prepping meals from scratch, speed scratch or no scratch, “We really need to pay attention to fundamentals and preparing foods properly,” says Catharine Powers. “Sometimes we miss the obvious. Green beans should not be olive green, but a bright green. A grilled sandwich should have a crunchiness to the outside and not be soggy. The bottom-line questions to ask when putting food on the line are, ‘Would I eat that? Would I feed it to my children?’ I don’t think we ask those questions enough. I often see foods at schools being reheated or baked in the oven, and they’re stacked on top of each other rather than in a single layer, to get it done more quickly. What have we gained? Mediocre product. We have to focus on the basics and doing it right.” A Sixth Sense? The job of each school nutrition director, manager and employee, boiled down, is simply to offer wholesome, nutritious food that kids will eat and that both the school and child can afford. So, how do you prioritize which of the five senses to meet within those parameters? Arguably, appearance (sight) is the sense to appeal to most, because of its sensory promises. This would be followed by maximizing the senses of taste, smell and mouth feel (touch) and, whenever appropriate and practical, sound. But some school nutrition professionals insist there’s another element at play, one beyond the five physiological senses. It’s a feeling, rather than a sense, that South Pasadena’s Michelle Curry terms “empowerment” and Ricardo Abbott in Minneapolis calls “interaction.” Eric Miller, chef manager of Oldfields School, a private boarding and day school for approximately 150 girls in Glencoe, Md., calls this pleasant feeling “comfort.” For Oldfields students, “Lunchtime is almost like a refuge,” Miller explains. “That’s probably true for anybody. There’s a level of comfort that isn’t inherently food-based. It’s the environment, the psychological benefit of decompressing with peers….” Like any business model that’s sustainable, a school nutrition operation needs and wants to build affinity for its brand. That quest often involves creating an experience that transcends the notion of merely meeting the demand for good looking, good-tasting food with a satisfying bite. Indeed, capitalizing on all five senses, plus the as-yet-undefined six “sense,” to maximize customer satisfaction in school meal programs is part and parcel of a new “interaction economy.” The premise behind an economy based on delivering an experience—as opposed to delivering service—is that organizations provide an experience when they engage customers in a memorable way, and that experience offers value that customers want and are willing to pay more for. The thinking behind an “interaction economy”—a term coined by Oregon-based Interaction Metrics in 2008—is that loyalty is far more beneficial than premium price to the health of an organization’s bottom line. In other words, many repeat visits at a lower, affordable cost will yield greater financial benefit over the long run than fewer, more-costly experiences. For school nutrition operations with captive audiences and low ceilings on what they can charge their customers, employing the elements of an interaction economy, which still relies on delivering experiences but taking them a step further, is not only reasonable, but practical. And in an effort to deliver that sixth “sense,” certain emotional perceptions come into play that often rely on the contributions of foodservice employees. Ownership. This is a perception with particularly high emotional equivalent in the economic times we find ourselves in. Many of your student customers know an adult, even if only by association, who has lost a home, a job or both. In a school nutrition environment, the perception of ownership can be communicated by letting the student customize his or her dish. Fresh. The word “fresh” is almost onomatopoeic (when a word imitates or suggests the source of the sound that it describes, like “oink,” “meow” and “roar”) in that it conjures a positive feeling about a food and carries strong emotion. Kern Halls saw a way to meld sight, aroma and sound to make Cuban and Philly cheese-steak sandwiches served throughout Orange County Public Schools even more popular. At one high school, which serves from 900 to 1,200 students in a single lunch period, sandwiches are assembled in back, but on the line are pressed on the panini grill, which customers can see, smell and hear. “Students believe the sandwiches are being prepared to order, when they’re simply being pressed live,” Halls notes. School nutrition directors and managers can capitalize on the power of the customer perception of “fresh” by viewing their foodservice arenas as beacons—and empowering their foodservice personnel to be ambassadors—of fresh. Trust. It’s a part of value, and one of the biggest trends in foodservice. Leading this trend is our constant need for assurance that we are eating the “right” things, that our food is safe, that we are not ingesting anything that will someday prove harmful. Americans are looking for edibles they can trust, and for food communities that stand personally behind their products. A good example is a staffed “action” station, which provides an inherent trust on the customer’s part in the individual who’s assembling a made-to-order item that the ingredients being used are wholesome and fresh. Mystery. Mystery in any foodservice operation can be either titillating or scary for the customer. When it intrigues and delights, mystery is an arrow in a school nutrition director’s customer-satisfaction quiver. Take the example of the stir-fry station at Pawling High School, at which Chef Rico Griffone transformed seemingly disparate ingredients into a delicious, colorful, aromatic dish, with a little theater thrown in. But adding positive mystery need not always be so complicated; a favorite lunch offering in Fayetteville Public Schools is a ham-and-cheese “pocket” prepared by stuffing a 2-oz. wheat-dough ball (made from a USDA recipe) with shredded ham and cheese and baking it. Kids enjoy the hidden “surprise” inside: the ham and cheese. “It looks almost like something you’d see at a dim-sum place, although it’s baked, not steamed,” Simmons says, adding that providing this little mystery is achieved exclusively with commodity products, which makes it affordable. “And it smells and tastes wonderful.” Sense(s) and sensibility. LED BY THE NOSE … OR THE EYES, EARS OR HANDS Just as there’s no one-size-fits-all learning style in the classroom, kids don’t respond to food stimuli the same way, either. Each child is born with a dominant sense that guides his or her food choices, according to Priscilla J. Dunstan, a child and parenting behavior expert and consultant and author of Child Sense: From Birth to Age 5, How to Use the 5 Senses to Make Sleeping, Eating, Dressing, and Other Everyday Activities Easier While Strengthening Your Bond with Your Child. Says Dunstan, the crisp-sounding snap of a fresh celery stick is music to an auditory child’s ears. She is able to determine freshness simply by the sound and, if it’s not there, often will refuse to eat. Routine is important to the child with this sense as dominant, both in the regularity of mealtimes and in the pattern of food. The family meal is a joy to auditory children, as eating together allows for the conversation they love so much. For visual children, eating is never a matter of simply a plate of food. How the food is presented and what it looks like matters. This means a carrot stick sliced a certain way can influence whether he will eat it, and an apple with the slightest bruise can be rejected by the most fervent apple lover. Taste and smell work in tandem in order to sense flavor, so for the child whose dominant senses are taste and smell, it might not be strawberry yogurt that she favors, but rather, a particular brand of strawberry yogurt. This child will enjoy a banana last night, but refuse another of differing ripeness this morning because, to her, both bananas don’t taste the same. According to Dunstan, such a child’s natural sensitivity to the environment can affect how much food she consumes. Finally, tactile children like to eat quickly and be done with mealtime as soon as possible. Anything that can be held and eaten on the move is a plus, with multiple smaller meals preferable to large, sit-down affairs. A tactile child often views eating as something he does when he has other things (or nothing else) to do, and he tends to prefer snack-type finger foods. Brent Frei is a freelance writer based in Schaumburg, Ill. Photography by iStockphoto, Medioimages/Photodisc, Creatas and Jupiterimages.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.
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