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Healthier Choices in School Cafeterias

A student from The New School Montessori holds a bowl of fresh roasted butternut squash soup.

A student from The New School Montessori holds a bowl of fresh roasted butternut squash soup.

Mystery meat on a bun. Pizza the size of a stop sign. Fried chicken nuggets with French fries. Unfathomable casseroles. Don’t forget giant cookies washed down with chocolate milk. For many of us, from kindergarten through high school, this is a good description of our typical school cafeteria lunch. While it was always amusing trying to guess what that brown mass on a platter was, the result of this diet, which is still common today in public schools, is deadly serious. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents since 1980. That year, an estimated 7 percent of children age 6 to 11 were considered obese. In 2010, that number more than doubled to nearly 18 percent. Today, more than one in three children and adolescents are considered overweight or obese.

The short- and long-term health risks for obese children are staggering. Their chances of developing risk factors for cardiovascular disease are dangerously high—as high as 70 percent, according to one study. The CDC also warns that obese children are at greater risk for bone and joint problems and increased long-term health risks for cancers of the breasts, colon, pancreas, prostate, thyroid, ovaries and cervix. Other byproducts of unhealthy eating, such as the impact on students’ ability to concentrate and perform well in school, must also be considered.

Measures are now in place to significantly increase health standards for school-age kids across the country. New federal guidelines for the National School Lunch Program, along with higher nutrition standards that are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, require public and nonprofit private schools to increase the availability of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low-fat and non-fat milk.

“The more exposure a person has to diverse and healthy food choices, the more encouraged they will be to try them.”
~Audrey Cobb, The New School Montessori chef

But until school cafeterias meet these standards, the most effective way to ensure healthy food choices is to choose a school that already meets or exceeds the national school nutrition guidelines. The New School Montessori, in Cincinnati, uses an integrated approach to teach its students the value of healthy eating. “Children are encouraged to try new things, and the youngest of our children (ages 3 to 6) receive a daily tasting opportunity,” says Eric Dustman, the school’s director for more than 13 years. “Since The New School Montessori’s interest is to provide children with a variety of good food options in order to independently make a meal, the students are included in preparing their lunches by washing fruit, setting tables, pouring drinks, assembling and taking down the buffets.” The tastings are broad in content, from raw coconut, cilantro and pomegranate seeds to the school’s own garden-grown vegetables. If a student enjoys the tasting, they are welcome to have more. If not, the student places the uneaten portion in a composting bin for the garden. The goal is that students try something new, regardless of their reaction to it on the first try.

The New School Montessori chef Audrey Cobb prepares a salmon and watercress salad for lunch.“We provide a hot, nutritious, varied and sugar-free meal every day,” Dustman says. “The connection between plate, planet, people and culture is powerful. Our students and staff get to experience the love and thought we put into the preparation of our food.”

Lunches at The New School are prepared from scratch. Entrees such as roasted Italian vegetable wraps, vegetable puff pastry tarts, tofu curry and baked lemon-herbed cod are served with colorful vegetarian side dishes. In addition to using only natural sweeteners such as honey and agave nectar, The New School’s food budget is spent primarily on fresh produce.

New School Chef Audrey Cobb says that preparing a diverse menu of healthy meals can be challenging, but “It’s worth it to avoid relying on frozen, processed foods from distant places. Cooking from scratch takes a little more time, but you have a lot more control over what goes into your dish.” She adds, “The more exposure a person has to diverse and healthy food choices, the more encouraged they will be to try them.” Cobb beams when she shares, “The best outcome is when people that eat my lunches tell me they tasted something new—and really liked it.”

Brent Donaldson is a communications specialist at Northern Kentucky University. For more information, visit


Chef Cobb’s Wild Rice Salad with Roasted Butternut Squash

Serves four to six

1 cup wild rice blend, cooked
1 medium butternut squash peeled and diced
½ cup chopped toasted walnuts
½ cup washed, stemmed, coarsely chopped kale
3 chopped green onions
½ cup dried cranberries
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp chopped fresh rosemary

1 Tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
½ tsp salt
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
3 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp fresh ginger
½ tsp ground nutmeg


Preheat oven to 350; toast walnuts for 5 to 7 minutes; set aside.

Preheat oven to 375.Toss squash with 3 Tbsp olive oil, and 1Tbsp rosemary. Roast 20-25 minutes or until soft, but not mushy.

In a large bowl toss the rice, squash, walnuts, kale, onion and dried cranberries.

In small bowl, add the dressing ingredients and stir with a whisk. Add to rice mixture and blend.

May be served warm, room temperature, or cold.

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