Earlier this month, we had the opportunity to speak with Angie Gaszak, RD Nutrition Specialist with the St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS). We wrote about their success with adding new and nutritious items to their menu. We also asked Angie if she had any advice for other schools looking to improve nutritional value of their meals and meet new nutritional and dietary guidelines. She provided great insight that we feel other schools can benefit from.
SPPS is a larger school district. They have 39,000 students. They have the equipment and resources to make 30,000 muffins in a single day! As we toured their facility, it was clear that efficiency was a large part of their strategy. We can see from their 78% participation rates, they are truly an example to follow.
We thought folks might appreciate some of their wisdom.
What advice do you have for other schools/district that may be struggling with the new school lunch guidelines?
- Choice bar- This is an additional option complete with a variety of fruits and vegetables that can be added to any meal. It helps meet all of the vegetable categories on a weekly basis. There are also grants available to help get salad bars in schools!
- Try to develop a cycle menu. Once you have several weeks that work, it is much easier to rotate in variety by replacing entrees with similar ones in terms of calories and nutrition profile.
- See if you can integrate some scratch cooking (even one item!) or work with a local bakery to get whole grain products that are low in sodium. Develop a game plan to gradually decrease the sodium.
- Go local! Create a big marketing campaign on local fruits and vegetables, bring in the farmers, make signs and show students how things are grown. Let the veggies sell themselves!
- Make sure your staff members are cheerleaders for the new regulations; integrate customer service skills in training. It goes a long way.
- Check with vendors in the area on items you are looking for (with specs) so that they know that there is a need. This can also create some healthy competition if they know you are also looking elsewhere.
- Network! Use recipes that are hits from neighboring districts—don’t reinvent the wheel
- Making Your Slow Cooker a Fast Food Machine
Research shows that meals eaten out tend to be higher in calories and fat compared to those prepared at home. Eating out is also hard on the wallet. With that in mind, I have challenged myself and my family to prepare more of our meals at home. So far, they are okay with this but probably because I didn’t eliminate eating out altogether (which for us is unrealistic). Plus, it’s only been one month.
My quest for cooking more meals at home has led me to become reacquainted with my slow cooker. You know what? I should have done this a long time ago. There is nothing like coming home at the end of the day, walking through the door, and smelling a home-cooked meal ready to eat.
For the most part, slow-cookers are nearly fool-proof. However, if you don’t practice good food safety (which includes washing your hands), you risk cooking up a foodborne illness. Here are some food safety tips to remember when using your slow cooker:
Handle ingredients with care. Keep perishable foods refrigerated until it is time to cook them and never put frozen meat in your slow cooker. I’ve seen quite a few recipes that say it is okay to put frozen meat in the slow cooker but it isn’t.
Fill slow cookers one-half to two-thirds full. Vegetables (especially potatoes and carrots) tend to cook slower than meat so place them on the bottom. Add the meat, and then cover the food with a source of liquid. The liquid is important because it generates the steam needed to cook the food.
Don’t peek. Each time you lift the lid, you lose valuable heat and increase the cooking time.
Check for doneness. Use a food thermometer to make sure your meat is cooked to a safe internal temperature.
Aside from food safety, there are a couple of other tips that you may find useful (especially if you are new to slow cooking). The first one is to brown your meat before placing it in the slow cooker. This way, you can remove excess fat plus I think it gives the meat a better color. Second, add any crushed herbs and spices near the end of the cooking time since they can lose their flavor during a long cooking period. The flavor of whole seasonings may intensify so you may want to use about half the amount.
Last week I experimented with a chicken recipe that I came across on a community website. I modified it a bit and was very happy with the results. This recipe is going in the “keep” pile.
1 package of boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 6 to a package)
1 can Mexican corn (drained)
1 can black beans (drained)
1 can diced tomatoes with green chilies (I used a mild variety) Do not drain
Directions: Place the chicken thighs on the bottom of the slow cooker. Add the corn, black beans, and tomatoes. Cover and let cook on LOW for 7-8 hours. The chicken will literally fall apart during the cooking process but that is okay. Serve over Spanish rice and add a fresh garden salad for quick meal. Serves 4.