Taking Cues from Restaurants, Schools Offer Build-Your-Own Lunch Options

As students enter middle school and high school these days, their pallets are typically more sophisticated – they’re looking for bold flavors with their own favorite ingredients.

To mimic the success and appeal of made-to-order restaurants like Quizno’s, Panera and Chipotle, school nutrition professionals have taken a healthy approach to offering customizable school meals. In Rochester, NY, area schools have created themes and options for “make your own” bars where students can choose from a variety of  healthy options.

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Similar to a Subway or Quizno’s, a Made to Order Wrap Station at Gates Chili High School (NY) allows students to build their own wrap, using healthy and fresh ingredients that follow whole grain and low sodium requirements.

Gates Chili, East Rochester & East Irondequoit Schools (NY) students are raving about the new options, ranging from burrito and taco bars, top-your-own pasta/Italian bars and Asian bars, as well as a made-to-order sandwich stations.

“We look for what is happening in the outside world and bring it to the cafeteria,” said School Nutrition Director Debbi Beauvais. “Student  customers are pretty sophisticated now because of the quick-serve market out there. Our goal is to incorporate that into the way we create school meals, within the healthier USDA guidelines we are charged with following.”

Wayne Central Schools (NY) have the “My Way Café” in their high school, a daily option that took off a couple of years ago when the district redesigned the lunch service.

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A sampling of typical menu customization options for “My Way Café” in Wayne Central High School (NY), including a deli bar/salad bar, Mexican Bar, Burger Bar, Rice or Noodle Bar and Baked Potato Bar.

“I’m a firm believer that if kids are given fresh, great options and can serve themselves, they will take more vegetables,” said Food Service Director Nique Wilson. “I’m a Chipotle fan myself, and I know we have to follow the trends in the marketplace if we want to keep this generation interested in our meals.”

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A Wayne Central Middle School (NY) student showing off the lunch she created at the school’s baked potato bar.

Students at Wayne Central High School have a new mouth-watering macaroni and cheese bar that just started in September. Healthy ingredients include reduced fat cheese, whole grain pasta and whole grain roll, with topping options of turkey bits, lower sodium chorizo sausage or diced buffalo chicken.

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Students at Wayne Central High School (NY) have the option of customizing their own salads, sandwiches, burgers, tacos, etc.

Students can also add Chinese noodles, tomatoes, jalapeño peppers, green peppers, red onion and black olives if they wish – making lunchtime extremely customizable to taste.

The themes and options for customizable school meals continues to grow. Wayne Central Schools also offers a baked potato bar, build-your-own taco or burrito on Tuesdays, Asian noodle bar and a burger bar.

“High school students in particular really take advantage of building their own meals,” said Wilson. “We certainly never hear there is not enough food. They have plenty of exciting and healthy options to choose from daily.”

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