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10 Ideas to Improve the School Lunch Experience

This post is sponsored by the Annual National Conference and the School Nutrition Association. All opinions are my own. 

What do you think of when you think about school lunches? Do you picture grease-laden pizza and a shiny red apple most kids ignore? The school lunch programs have completely been revamped since we were in school and you might be surprised to know just how different the lunch programs look these day. Schools face a series of regulations both on a national and often on a regional and district level as well. Such as requirements to use whole grain wheat and to offer a specific number of calories and a range of nutrients. It all starts to feel like a complicated puzzle to come up with the perfect meal plan, and it can be hard to keep that menu exciting while meeting the regulations.

Last month, I had the opportunity to take a behind the scenes look at Hot-lanta Annual National Conference hosted by the School Nutrition Association. This yearly conference provides an opportunity for district decision makers and staff, encouraging speakers, and vendors to come together to make these important decisions that will impact our children’s upcoming school year. There were so many insights I learned at the conference, including 5 Things I Learned from the Lunch Ladies, and at the heart of it all was experiencing the school staff from all over the country coming together to share ideas and help improve their own school lunch programs with the heart of it all to make a lunch that was nutritious, and yet still fun and delicious for the kids! Here’s some of my favorite ideas I took away from the event. If you’re a parent, you can get involved with your school’s PTA to start adding some of these exciting ideas to the lunchrooms, where the school and staff feel they are an appropriate fit.

10 Ideas to Improve the School Lunch Experience

Try one of these 10 ideas to make the school lunch program exciting and fun for kids! (AD) #school #lunch #backtoschool

1. Give Flavor Options with Seasoning Shakers – Kids love dips, but they can be messy. A perfect alternative that is just as fun is adding a few options of seasoning blends the kids can use to customize their meal, add flavor, and most of all add fun! The Shake It Up crew that shared this idea also shared a series of no-salt recipes to try like ranch, jerk, or Italian seasoning blends. They found the simple addition of adding seasoning shakers to be widely successful with the schools that have tried it, and I can understand why! What a fun way to make a rotating lunch menu feel a little different.

10 Ideas to Improve the School Lunch Experience School Lunch03967

Recipe from the Shake It Up in School Nutrition Initiative 

Jerk Seasoning Blend:

  • 1/4 cup onion flakes
  • 1/4 cup onion powder
  • 2 1/2 tbls dried chives
  • 2 1/2 tbls thyme
  • 1 1/2 tsp allspice
  • 1 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1 1/2 tsp cayenne
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp nutmeg

2. Give Lunch Room Tours – Getting kids excited about the school lunch program can be as simple as an in-school field-trip to tour the lunch room and kitchen areas. It can be a great part of a lesson plan around healthy eating or worked it to many other topics. Helping the kids to see behind-the-scenes can help them feel more comfortable trying the foods and participating in school lunches.

3. Try a School Gardens – You can get the students involved with the school lunch program in a hands-on way with a school garden. You can utilize an elective course around horticulture to motivate participation or seek out volunteers to foster a sense of ownership in the program. Plus, the food produced will give back to the school’s budget and help the kids realize where food comes from and be more willing to give new vegetables a try.

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4. Follow Food Trends – As you watch, and hear, of different food trends happening you can catch the excitement of those trends to make the menu exciting for students. Food trucks is one of the latest trends along with “bites” like macaroni bites and wraps. Sometimes, presentation can be everything!

5. Plan Student Competitions – Another way to get students involved is to invite the students to try to come up with their own menus, following the same regulations you face. Let the school vote on their favorites from those that meet the criteria and try it in the menu rotation. You just might find a new school favorite! You can also enlist the help of the students to name the different daily menus or entrees or try a cook-off challenge like a mini-junior chef experience at school.

6. Utilize Food Trucks – With the craze around food trucks your school district may be able to capitalize on some of the hype! You could partner with a local food truck or start up your own. Some schools who tried this found it was a great revenue source as even parents would stop in to order from the food trucks and they can serve double duty by helping at events like school fundraisers, theater productions or sports games.

7. Invite Parents to Join for Lunch – Start encouraging parents to stop in for lunch and visit with their child at the school. It can be a great way for parents to connect with their kids and see what their day-to-day looks like. Helping parents to get comfortable in the cafeteria can also help the students in turn feel more comfortable with the hot lunch program.

8. Have Themed Cafeteria Days – Let the cafeteria dress up and the lunchroom get decorated from time to time around different fun themes. You can even have the daily menu to match. Examples might include a Dr. Seuss themed day during Read Across America week, a fun menu plan for the school’s spirit week, or seasonal/holiday themed days where appropriate. Activities like these can help the students connect with the staff and make the lunchroom feel more inviting.

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This was a garbanzo bean taco!

9. Use What You’re State Does Best – Seek out what’s local in your area to utilize in your menu planning where it’s a good fit. North Carolina is all about sweet potatoes, for example, and it can be a fun way to highlight a little fact about the place you live while coming up with the menu plan.

10. Partner with the Tech Department – Start drumming up excitement and participation in the school lunch program by getting the school’s tech or media classes involved! They can write scripts, take film shots, and plan a video that can eventually go on their resume and start building skills for their future. Support their creation by sharing it on the school website and in newsletters or school owned social media, where appropriate.

This video was created by Georgia’s Union County High School media department. They did a fantastic job and showcase a lot of these easy ideas in the video, see how many of them you notice!

Parents, students, and school staff can all make a big impact on the school lunch program’s success! You can find more ideas, resources, tools, and help on the website. Getting involved can make a difference in the lives of those children around you where the school lunch program can impact thousands of children every single day giving them a healthy start and health outlook on food choices.

Head over to see 5 Things I Learned from the School Lunch Ladies post, next. These ladies really are amazing!

Which of these ideas would you love to have your school try? Have more ideas to share? Leave them in the comments to add to this list! 

Marissa Zurfluh

Wednesday 20th of September 2017

These are great ideas for all schools to look into. So many times you hear about poor quality lunches, something has to be available to help them.


Wednesday 20th of September 2017

Due to the hurricane, we actually have free lunch for the next few weeks at our school. My son is now trying cafeteria food for the first time! He was excited about it.

Toni | Boulder Locavore

Wednesday 20th of September 2017

These are really great ideas! I love the idea of letting kids plan the menu. Awesome!


Tuesday 19th of September 2017

These are all great ideas! I wish more schools would get creative with their school lunch ideas. Even I as a parent needs to get more creative at times.

Lisa Bristol

Tuesday 19th of September 2017

I am always looking for ways to keep school lunches changing for the kids. The Shake It Up in School Nutrition Initiative is a fantastic idea.

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