5 Emerging School Food Trends

emerging school food trends

Written by Milt Miller – Trends emerging in school food today get their origins from America’s health and nutrition conscious restaurants. Eateries, large and small local shops, and corporate chains that focus on healthy and fresh as well as kid friendly American and ethnic cuisines. The American Dairy Association (ADA), Farm to School Programs, and other champions of fresh fruits, vegetables, and dairy, lend support to these popular new kid favorites. These emerging trends all involve several common themes that make them school food compliant and kid friendly. They all involve fresh ingredients, are or can be hand held, are customizable, provide choices, fast, and are colorful and produced in front of the customer. Made-to-order, fresh, gluten-free, nut-free, Grab n’ Go, whole grain, and healthy are the buzz words of America’s dining preferences.

Many of these new cuisines involve special equipment and special training to insure their success on a large scale, but with some thought and minor limitations of choice, these trends can breathe life into a stagnating breakfast or lunch program. Too often directors and their staffs jump into providing a popular trend item with little or no thought to how the product is best delivered in their operation. Limitations on equipment and basic skills needed are ignored to keep up with the emerging student desire for new trendy items.

A classic example of this is the increasing popularity of fruit and vegetable smoothies. These great tasting beverages meet several components of a reimbursable breakfast or lunch. They are nutritious, hand held, provide choices, made-to-order, gluten free, nut free, but “fast” gets lost in the shuffle and participation plummets. The ADA has provided funding for equipment (blenders), cups, recipes, and on-site support to make this great product available in school cafes. All participants in this process that I have spoken with, from staff to student customers, have shared that supply is many times overshadowed by demand and the speed of service goes out the window. The blenders specified and provided by ADA, at my last investigation make smoothies ten (10) at a time (1 Gallon). Great for a slow day, but with 400 students or more in a sitting this can be a real time and delivery drag. These are great for a specialty bar and an area with small participation, but for a high volume area this can be a disaster, creating frustration for both staff and students. Not to mention speed of service becomes non-existent.

My suggestion to making this trendy item a hit involves the spending of between $300 and $800. An immersion blender (Burr Mixer), allows staff to make smoothies in large quantities. By large I mean five (5) gallons or more at a time. Making two (2) or three (3) types of the most popular smoothies, pre-pouring them and making them part of a Grab n’ Go breakfast or lunch can make lines of service move much faster. Blenders can be set-up at a smoothie bar in another area, providing customizable choices and showing the made to order concept for those who don’t mind waiting. This system makes production and service easier for the staff and faster and more convenient for student customers. The immersion blender will pay for itself in a matter of weeks and can be used to make other concoctions for other fresh items. I have tried this with great results in several client operations.

Many of these trends don’t always work in school settings like they do in restaurants where people expect to wait a bit to be served. Many involve the major expense of a remodel or purchasing a major piece of equipment. A bit of thought and some minor changes to the concept can and will work well in most schools without a major cash outlay in the beginning.

Below I have listed several of the new hot trends coming to school food. Along with these items is a list of equipment and design considerations. Most call for major renovations and equipment purchases that many schools can’t afford or don’t have room for. With some creative thinking and some minor limitations any of the following can be made to work in most school cafes:


Fruit and vegetable smoothies

  • Equipment considerations: High-powered, noise-reducing blenders and extra green-colored chopping boards for prep work.
  • Design considerations: More countertop space for placing blenders on the serving line to make the action associated with making smoothies visual to the students; under-counter or added refrigeration can keep fresh fruits and veggies within reach of staff during busy periods; locate this task near a sink or water line for quick and easy cleaning between smoothie-making.

Authentic Mexican food 

  • Equipment considerations: High-powered blenders for made-from-scratch salsas; stock pots or combi ovens for braising proteins such as carnitas and barbacoa; flat-tops that staff can use to make quesadillas, tacos and burritos to order; tortilla presses and warmers.
  • Design considerations: Flexible equipment and workspaces that can accommodate Mexican and other foods; refrigerated sandwich prep tables for holding different ingredients that can allow students to build their own Mexican-inspired meal one day and sandwiches or build-your-own pizza the next.

Made-from-scratch pizza

  • Equipment considerations: High-powered gas ovens with aesthetic appeal or conveyor ovens in open view; pizza peels and dough presses.
  • Design: Refrigerated sandwich prep tables with different toppings for students to build their own pizza with the meats, cheeses and veggies they want.

Salads and Fruit

  • Equipment considerations: Extra cooler space and prep tables.
  • Design considerations: Expanded, build-your-own salad bars with fresh fruit options, proteins like hard-boiled eggs, chickpeas and tofu, and pre-made salads and other vegetable-forward dishes for faster grab-n-go and for younger children that might struggle with building their own meals.

Hand-Held Foods

  • Equipment considerations: Refrigerated grab-n-go display cases for pre-made sandwiches and wraps; hot-holding units for pizza slices, empanadas, breakfast sandwiches, tacos and other pre-made, hand-held items made just before the lunch rush.
  • Design considerations: Expanded grab-n-go, retail-like space and displays positioned so that students can bypass the main line.

These ideas can increase participation and add excitement to your school café. With a bit of creative thinking they are very doable in school settings. Consider the idea I have given you and if it works try another. If you need a bit of coaching, just let me know I would be happy to discuss implementation with you.

Milt Miller is the Principal and Chief Innovator at Milton Miller Consulting. Throughout his 32 years in the food service industry he has managed, operated and assisted food service programs to become successful. For more information on this and other topics, contact Milt at; www.miltonmillerconsultant.com

5 Emerging School Food Trends

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