Chef aims to build healthy eating habits among students

District 16 is partnering with a local chef in an effort to improve its lunch program and to work with the nutrition staff to create new menu items easy on the taste buds.

 Chef Marshall O’Brien is introducing Spring Lake Park District 16 students to new foods that are nutritious and delicious. For more turn to page 17. Photo by Elyse Kaner
Chef Marshall O’Brien is introducing Spring Lake Park District 16 students to new foods that are nutritious and delicious. . Photo by Elyse Kaner

Chef Marshall O’Brien brings his culinary finesse to the Spring Lake Park School District cafeterias. His mission? To turn school lunch time into learning time – about foods.

“It’s a baby-step process,” said O’Brien, bent on changing the eating habits of students to a more substantial diet.

His hope is to introduce them to nutritious and delicious foods, habits that will find their way into their homes and last throughout a lifetime.

O’Brien cooks with food items in mind that meet the new USDA food guidelines for school lunches, requiring more fruits, veggies and whole grains.

Take, for instance, the student who recently stopped O’Brien in the cafeteria after sampling a colorful dish during a recent taste test day.

How did he make the delicious roasted apple and carrots combo topped with cinnamon and honey? she asked.

“That was so delicious. I want to make it at home,” she said.

O’Brien readily makes recipes available for students and parents on request.

Student feedback is important to him. After sampling new foods, students have an opportunity to vote on whether a particular item should remain on the menu.

“Overall, he has been received extremely well by all to include students, staff and nutrition employees,” said Amy Kimmel, District 16’s food service coordinator. “His presence creates a fun and delicious learning environment for the students.”

New recipes

O’Brien, 35, who started working in the district in August, visits the district’s schools about two to three times a month.

He is under contract for the 2012-13 school year and his salary is paid from the nutrition service department, according to Kimmel.

Among his duties, he conducts team teaching for the cooks, based on staff needs, or, during a taste test day, he’ll be on hand to introduce new dishes to students. On those days, he can be found in the kitchen dicing or cooking up a batch of veggies, for instance, or dishing up healthy eats and talking to kids in the serving line.

His goals are to further phase in more cooking-from-scratch menu items to meet the USDA guidelines.

“Spring Lake Park has done a great job in phasing that in,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien also plans to provide new recipes, continue on-site support for skill building and communicate more with families about the enhanced lunch program.

And, yes, more fruits and vegetables will be introduced. Most kids eat too much protein and highly processed refined grains, according to O’Brien.

What’s next on O’Brien’s special menu selections when kids return from the holiday break?

Zingy ginger chicken and zesty chili carrots.

Smart eating

The way O’Brien sees it, the recycling movement received an extra nudge when it was introduced in the schools. Kids extended the environmentally friendly habits into their homes. Similarly, O’Brien is intent on starting his own healthy foods movement in schools with hopes of kids bringing the message of smart eating back to their homes.

In a fast food world, he advocates for families taking the time to sit down and dine together. Cooking together is an added bonus.

“There’s magic in the kitchen,” he says. “When people cook together, amazing things can happen.”

Always had a food interest

O’Brien was raised in Deephaven.

He graduated from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, with a degree in communications. He later enrolled in Hennepin Technical College’s culinary arts program.

He’s been cooking for 12 years, but has always had an interest in food.

He recalls when as a first-grader he made potato leek soup in his mother’s attic apartment. Among many items, she cooked Mediterranean-style dishes, lamb shish kabob, tabouli and humus.

O’Brien’s upbringing of healthy, cooked-from-scratch recipes has found its way into his professional life and under his tutelage, concentrically, into as many as a dozen school districts, among them Minnetonka, Jordan, Waconia, Orono and Westonka.

He recently held a team-building training session in Spring Lake Park that featured a Mediterranean menu. Chicken wraps, humus and marinated vegetables were in the lineup.

But O’Brien, in a humbling manner, doesn’t look for any accolades.

Instead, he wants kids to be excited about the food the district’s staff is preparing.

Ultimately, he wants to show them “that their lunch staff cares about them – that Spring Lake Park cares about them. That’s why I’m here,” he said.

District 16’s food service operates on a $2.2 million self-sustaining budget.

O’Brien offers the following tip: Have a family meal together once a week for about a half-hour.

Bonus tip: Have your kids plan or prepare the meal.

District 16 serves students in Spring Lake Park and parts of Blaine and Fridley.

For more information on O’Brien, visit his website at

Elyse Kaner is at [email protected]