District 16 students get a vote on menu choices

While elections may be a distant memory, Spring Lake Park High School students are just now casting their votes – for menu items of their choice in the school cafeteria.

Last week was Taste Test Day. The first time students at the school have had a chance to decide on whether a specific food should be placed on the lunch menu. The dish? Zingy ginger chicken.

Chef Marshall O’Brien handed out hundreds of samples of zesty ginger chicken to SLP High School students as part of Taste Test Day. Students later voted on whether to place the item on the lunch menu. Photo by Elyse Kaner
Chef Marshall O’Brien handed out hundreds of samples of zesty ginger chicken to SLP High School students as part of Taste Test Day. Students later voted on whether to place the item on the lunch menu. Photo by Elyse Kaner

A vote in favor called for students tossing their empty sample containers in the thumbs up bin. A no vote? The thumbs down bin.

Chef Marshall O’Brien during lunch periods Jan. 31 at the high school was busily doling out hundreds of samples of the zesty dish made from sauteed chicken pieces, broccoli, garlic, onions, orange juice and, of course, ginger.

Most every sample cup was received with a “thank you” from polite students.

“The idea is to take things kids are familiar with and add a little pizzazz,” said O’Brien, who has been contracted by Spring Lake Park District 16 to add some, shall we say, extra spice, into the district’s food service program.

The chicken sample was an added treat to their serving trays piled with a variety of food choices for the day: a fresh greens salad, corn dog, tater tots, noodles with red sauce, an orange and more.

A second helping

Diego Deloya, an 11th-grader, liked the zingy treat so much, he returned to the line for seconds.

“They’re pretty good,” Deloya said. He especially liked the flavor, he said, comparing it with Chinese food.

The idea of voting for new foods to appear on the menu appealed to Deloya as well.

“It gives students a chance to get more delicious, nutritious food in the school,” he said on cue as if he had heard the message before. And perhaps he had.

Delicious and nutritious is what the district is aiming for while ushering in the new USDA nutritional food guidelines. Delicious, nutritious and healthy.

Zingy chicken fits the bill. It has both adequate protein and stays within a required calorie range, said Amy Kimmel, District 16’s food service director.

“It’s really an opportunity to focus more on scratch cooking.”

Her hope is that students will eat healthier and slowly phase out processed or convenience foods from their diets, Kimmel said.

Burgers not 

for everyone

Eleventh-grader Alisson Ayala was enjoying lunch with her friends. She gave the somewhat sweet-tasting chicken sample a thumbs up.

“It has vegetables,” she said about the dish. “I think it’s good because not all people like hamburgers. They like vegetables, too. It’s healthy, too.”

Ninth-graders Graisen Pearson and MyKenzi Hanson finished their samples and tossed their empty cups in the thumbs up bin.

“They were really good,” Pearson said. “It had a lot of flavor.”

Hanson agreed. “They were sweet. You could taste the ginger.”

The girls said they would like to see more flavorful choices and more seasoning in their lunch menu selections.

Earlier, a taste test was met with good reviews from students at Westwood last week and Northpoint Elementary the week before.

O’Brien, a local chef that District 16 has partnered with in an effort to improve its lunch program and to work with the nutrition staff to create new nutritious and delicious menu items, was hired at the beginning of the school year.

He rotates throughout District 16 schools every other week. Sometimes he’ll conduct taste tests with the students, other times he’ll workshop with the kitchen staff on preparing and cooking ideas and techniques.

The way O’Brien sees it, the taste test showcases the lunch program and gets kids excited about trying new foods.

“Kids should be curious about their food,” he said.

The taste test gives students a chance to tell the school what they think about the foods they’re being served. It gives them a voice that makes them feel a part of the process, O’Brien said.

O’Brien’s goal is for students to take the healthy eating habits they’re learning in school back to their families and to eat better at home. He strongly encourages families to sit down and eat meals together.

Kimmel said Taste Test Day is getting good comments.

“We’re always looking for ways to expand our choices and to get their (the students’) feedback,” she said.

Next up for the tasting test? Parmesan roasted cauliflower and broccoli.

The SLP High School food service staff serves about 5,000 lunches and about 1,000 breakfasts a week, according to kitchen manager Bonnie Johnson.

Elyse Kaner is at [email protected]