Back-to-School Meal Planning Tips
Click on the links below to get tips on ways to add more variety on your back-to-school menus.
1. Feature What’s Growing Near You
Highlight local vegetables that are harvested in late summer and early fall. Depending on your state, seasonal vegetables may include cabbage, edamame, peppers, and summer squash. Offer taste-testing activities, creative signage, and food education to help students get to know the featured veggie. Be sure to follow local health department guidance for taste-testing events. Use the Food Buying Guide for Child Nutrition Programs to determine the amount of local vegetables to buy to meet meal pattern requirements.
2. Use Vegetables from USDA Foods
Frozen green beans and frozen diced carrots are among the most popular vegetables from the USDA Foods in Schools Program. Try the Green Beans with Potatoes and Smoked Turkey recipe on your back-to-school menu. The green beans and carrots now come in smaller 2-pound bags in addition to the 5-pound bags, depending on your needs. Check out the USDA Foods Available List for SY 2021-2022.
3. Offer Grab 'n' Go Salads
Looking for new salad ideas? The Child Nutrition Recipe Box has lots of grab 'n' go salad ideas. Try these USDA container salad recipes for Salad Shakers, Marinated Black Bean Salad, Mediterranean Quinoa Salad, and Macaroni Salad.
4. Cater to Your Audience
The Newton County School System in Georgia offers vegetables using Southern recipes that appeal to their students. Popular vegetable offerings include Black-Eyed Pea Hummus, Cabbage Rolls, Green Beans, Tomato Bisque, and Succotash. The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Schools in Arizona offer a Soam Bav Bowl (Tepary Bean Bowl) made with local ingredients and USDA Foods. This dish reflects indigenous foods from O’odham and Piipaash traditions and is popular among students and school staff.
5. Dress Your Veggies
Try making USDA’s Ranch Dressing recipe. Learn how to make other salad dressings by viewing the Institute of Child Nutrition’s Scratch-Made Salad Dressings and Condiments webinar. To access this webinar and other on-demand trainings register or sign in to the iLearn portal. If providing pre-packaged salads, remember to keep dressing in a small container and place it inside the larger container with the veggies. That way, if there are any leaks, it goes into the salad!
1. Celebrate with Fresh Fruits from the Orchard
Join schools across the country during Farm to School Month in October, by hosting an apple crunch event featuring local apples. Students will be excited for juicy, crunchy apples on the menu the rest of the school year!
2. Use Fruits from USDA Foods
As a cost-savings approach, the staff at New Castle Community Schools in Indiana uses the USDA Foods in Schools Program frozen and canned fruits as much as possible. School nutrition staff drain and freeze the USDA Foods canned peaches and use them in smoothies. Staff from New Hampshire’s Oyster River School District make a blueberry compote with USDA Foods frozen blueberries. The compote is used in a fruit, granola, and yogurt parfait, which has become a popular grab n’ go item. Look for other fruit options on the USDA Foods Available List for SY 2021-2022. Want even more fruit? Purchase a variety of domestic fresh fruit through the US Department of Defense Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.
3. Offer Grab 'n' Go Fruits
Need help determining how much whole fruit or pre-cut options you need to purchase for your grab n’ go menus? Use the Food Buying Guide for Child Nutrition Programs (FBG) Calculator on the FBG Interactive Web-based Tool or the FBG Mobile App to determine how much fruit to purchase for your grab n’ go meal service.
4. Use Fruits in Regional or Cultural Dishes
Consider incorporating fruit dishes that represent different ethnicities, regions, and cultures. You can use these Hawaiian Ham Coconut Rice and Aztec Grains Salad recipes that provide ¼ cup and ⅜ cup of fruits per serving, respectively. For more recipe ideas, check out the Child Nutrition Recipe Box.
5. Style Your Fruits
Learn how to handle fruits and make them look fresh and appealing on your serving line by viewing the Institute for Child Nutrition’s Produce Lab Videos. Showcase your new skills by preparing this delicious Waldorf Fruit Salad recipe. Work with your local and/or state health department to safely restore and operate self-service stations, such as salad bars.
1. Make Whole Grains a Food Education Experience
Promote local whole-grain menu offerings with educational activities and visits with local farmers. Use the Whole World of Whole Grains section of the Team Nutrition Popular Events Idea Booklet to find ways to introduce students to a variety of whole grains as you add them to your school menus. Read more about Integrating Local Foods into Child Nutrition Programs.
2. Use Whole Grains from USDA Foods
The USDA Foods in Schools Program has many whole grain-rich items for school meals. The frozen whole grain-rich tortillas make great grab n’ go sandwich wraps. Be sure to thaw the tortillas completely to prevent breaking when assembling the wraps. Try them to make this popular Roasted Fish Crispy Slaw Wrap recipe. See the full list of USDA Foods Available for School Year 2021-2022.
3. Try New Whole Grain-Rich Products
Consider adding a new whole grain-rich food to your menu, based on feedback from students. Use the Exhibit A Grains Tool in the Food Buying Guide to determine the grains contribution of the new item and how much to serve to meet meal pattern requirements. Learn more by watching the How to Maximize the Exhibit A Grains Tool! training video (now available with captioning in Spanish).
4. Develop New Recipes with Local Whole Grains
Montana’s Office of Public Instruction is developing a recipe featuring Montana-grown barley as part of a Fiscal Year 2021 Team Nutrition Training Grant. They held a statewide recipe contest and the Bison and Barley Soup recipe was a clear winner. The recipe was taste tested with students, receiving high approval rates, and will be standardized for school meals soon!
5. Start the Day with Whole Grains
Add variety to your breakfast meal service with different whole grain-rich options. Feature items made with oats like Fruity Oatmeal and Oatmeal Muffin Squares. Switch it up with breads made with whole-wheat flour like these Baking Powder Biscuits and Pancakes. Don’t forget to try some whole grain-rich tortillas, which are used in this Breakfast Burrito recipe!
1. Put Local Meats and Meat Alternates on the Menu
Include local meat in special events, such as back-to-school barbecues. Don’t forget to include local beans, peas, and lentils as vegetarian options. You can enhance the flavor of meats and meat alternates without added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium using spices! For example, try a smoky and savory barbeque blend. Learn more about Local Meat in Schools and get tips on incorporating new spices from the Institute of Child Nutrition’s i-Bite videos.
2. Use Meats and Meat Alternates from USDA Foods
Try offering the top-rated Stir-Fry Fajita Chicken, Squash, and Corn recipe made with the USDA Foods in Schools Program frozen chicken fajita strips. If you’re looking for more variety, try USDA foods pulled pork and chickpeas to make Savory Street Tacos with Fiesta Corn Salad similar to the ones shown in the photo from East Hampton Public Schools in Connecticut. See the full list of USDA Foods Available for School Year 2021-2022.
3. Go Big with Beans
Beans can be a popular vegetarian or vegan menu item. They can be purchased ahead and stored for “back up” entrees. One type of cooked bean can often be substituted for another in recipes. Beans often hold up well in grab n’ go meals and can be an affordable protein source. Black Bean Patty with Crema Sauce, Refried Beans, Smokin’ Powerhouse Chili, Fiesta Wrap, Black Bean Hummus, and more recipes are available through the Child Nutrition Recipe Box.
4. Get Trendy with Meal Bowls
Colorado’s Greeley-Evans Weld County School District purchased an industrial packaging machine so they could offer scratch-made meal bowls. The district’s central production kitchen team does the cooking, portioning, sealing, and freezing before shipping them to the sites for reheating and final service. The bowls fit well into insulated totes for delivery to the classrooms. The district says that high school students have been choosing the bowls over pizza! Give USDA’s Bean Burrito Bowl recipe a try!
5. Offer Meats and Meat Alternates at Breakfast
Try different fruit and yogurt combinations to make colorful smoothies that are perfect for grab 'n' go meal service. Learn more in Team Nutrition’s Offering Smoothies as Part of Reimbursable School Meals guide. Find more meats and meat alternates breakfast menu ideas in the Offering Meats and Meat Alternates at School Breakfast guide.
1. Source Local Milk
Milk is local, fresh, and always in season! Fluid milk is the second most frequently purchased local item by schools, according to the 2019 Farm to School Census. Thompson Public Schools in Connecticut partnered with Fort Hills Dairy Farm and other partners to expand their breakfast program offerings, and participation nearly doubled. Join the trend and support your local economy!
2. Make Sure Milk is Cold
Having the right equipment to ensure that milk is served cold is important for food safety. Kids prefer cold milk and are more likely to consume milk when it is nice and cold. Milk should be stored at 41⁰F or below. Schools in need of equipment, such as milk coolers and milk dispensers, can ask their state agency about competitively awarded sub-grants for schools to purchase equipment (>$1,000 per item).
3. Ensure Equitable Access to Milk's Nutrients
Students with lactose intolerance can experience discomfort when consuming regular milk and, as a result, not drink the milk offered at school. Certain racial and ethnic groups, including Hispanics/Latinos, Blacks/African Americans, Asian, and American Indian populations, are more likely to be lactose intolerant. Schools may offer lactose-free and lactose-reduced low-fat and fat-free milk without the need of a written statement from a licensed medical authority or a parent or guardian. Lactose-free milk is milk without the lactose, so it provides the same 13 essential nutrients in each serving. Consider including information about the availability of lactose-free and lactose-reduced milk on your school nutrition website and menu in the languages that are spoken by parents and guardians of students at your school.
4. Encourage Milk
Schools are using innovative methods, such as “smoothie and hot chocolate days” to offer milk in fun ways, particularly for older students. Smoothies that include 1 cup of milk per serving meet the milk requirement for a school meal. Learn more in Team Nutrition's Offering Smoothies as Part of Reimbursable School Meals. Warming chocolate milk and offering it at breakfast is also popular in the fall. Los Nietos School District in California warms the milk in stainless steel containers at 300 degrees for 10 minutes and keeps them in a food warmer until serving. Even though flavored milk includes added sugars, schools can balance these offerings by limiting other foods containing added sugars during the week. The Fuel Up To Play 60 program created by the National Football League (NFL) and National Dairy Council (NDC) includes a number of milk educational resources for K-12 schools.
5. Plan for a Dynamic Food Environment
Schools facing milk supply chain disruptions due to COVID-19 may use the regulatory authority found in federal procurement regulations at 2 CFR 200.320(c)(3), which allows operators to use the emergency noncompetitive proposal procurement method to negotiate a new one-year contract for school year 2021-2022. There are also state waivers for meal pattern flexibilities including low-fat flavored milk. Schools should continue to work with their state agencies if issues arise in their milk procurement process. Learn more here.