Spice Up Taste Testing by Re-Inventing a Familiar Bite!

Four food service directors from northeast Ohio use teamwork as the “special sauce” in their school nutrition events. The group meets regularly to share ideas, menus, and plan events. Last week, Joyce Dicks (Springfield Local) and Natalie Winkle (Boardman Local) introduced us to the Food Factor Wheel. This week, Sue Hughes (Sebring Local) and Tascin Brooks, DTR (Austintown Local) talk about coconuts, spaghetti squash, and spice bars!

Sebring Local Schools

BL Miller Elementary students love the Food Factor Wheel! They cheer; they whisper; they clap for that wheel. They cheer when they see the wheel set up in the cafeteria. They whisper to one another about the range of selections. They clap for their taste and to encourage the participation of their peers. “Students recognize the wheel and get really excited about the opportunity to try the new items,” observes Sebring Local Schools food service director Sue Hughes.

Hughes wanted to feature a mix of items, and highlight foods that are available through the Child Nutrition USDA Foods Program. Students were offered these familiar – but with a flavor twist – items:

  • Roasted sweet potatoes
  • Crunchy chick peas, seasoned with garlic salt, black pepper and then baked
  • Strawberry and sour apple applesauce
  • Marinara sauce on top of spaghetti squash
Sebring_applesauce_Jan 2016 (2)

Sour apple and strawberry applesauce samples were part of the event.

Fresh star fruit, kiwi, blackberries, and papaya were also on the wheel. Hughes reports that students loved the flavor of the blackberries and kiwi, and that every sample was eaten by the end of lunch!

A fresh coconut was a big hit with the students. Staff broke open the hard shell and toasted the coconut. The shell was displayed alongside the toasted coconut. “Students were intrigued that I got coconut out of that shell!” said Hughes. She added that toasted coconut might not be a regular menu item, but items like the coconut create an excitement about fruits and vegetables. “We like it because it also gives staff an opportunity to teach about the different properties of foods.”

The following day at the Junior/Senior High School, persimmon was added to the Food Factor Wheel. The fruit looks like a cross between an apple and a tomato. Few people, including Hughes, had ever tried a persimmon; most of the students reported that it was very sweet!

The high school event also included a special guest – a graduate of the high school who is currently enrolled in culinary training at Mahoning County Career and Technical Center. The future chef wore her white jacket and chef’s hat as she served the samples. The students were happy to see her!

Austintown Local

Spice bars allow students to personalize the flavor of vegetables and other menu items. One hurdle to the bar’s use is that spices can be a new concept and skill for students. To introduce their spice bar, Austintown Fitch High School took advantage of the popularity of pizza to teach students the different flavors of spices. Students had the opportunity to sample five different spices on a homemade whole grain pizza crust.

  • Cajun
  • Sriracha
  • Veggie
  • Garden
  • Herb blend

“Hopefully, students will spice up vegetables and other menu items that are sometimes bland and learn to enjoy the flavors that spices can lend to the healthy menu items,” says Austintown Local Schools food service director, Tascin Brooks, DTR. Approximately 800 out of 1500 high school students came through to sample the seasonings that are now available daily at the new flavor station.

Fitch_SpiceTaste3_Jan2016 (2)

High school students sample different spices.

The spice bar went live the day after the test event with positive results. “The most popular flavors are the Cajun, sriracha, and garden seasonings. Students and staff were flavoring their vegetables, salads, and main entrees! We are very pleased with the response,” observed Brooks.

“We are always trying to think outside of the box to keep student dining services exciting. We want students to be excited about healthy eating and look forward to school meals,” added Brooks. The next event will feature a healthy cooking event, with the four Austintown Fitch High School principals competing against one another.

Healthy Cooking Throw Down

The healthy cooking throw down is modeled after popular television cooking challenges. Each principal will create a healthy item that includes vegetables flavored with spices from spice bar. The winning recipe will be featured on the school menu. High school culinary students will assist each principal as they create a reduced-fat corn chip chili pie recipe. The Fitch High School student body will vote on the entrée creations. The winning recipe will be featured on the menu during the following week.

Tips for a Successful Event

We asked these seasoned experts for advice on holding successful taste test and cooking events. Here are their tips:

  • Have fun! Students will follow your lead.
  • Invite others to the event. The group found that school board members, administrators, and teachers were happy to be involved, and were valuable role models during the event.
  • Ask for help. Think about university student interns, public health department educators, volunteer parent groups, and vendors.
  • Keep the momentum going!

Youngstown State University dietetic students William Masters, Chelsea Ludwiczak, and Cricket Murry assist Sue Hughes with the event at Sebring Local Schools.


Contributors of this blog post include:

Tascin Brooks, DTR, Food Services Director

Austintown Local Schools

Sue Hughes, Food Service Director

Sebring Local Schools

Beth Stefura, M Ed, RD, LD

Educator, OSU Extension


Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

The Lunch Tray

kids and food, in school and out

Live Healthy Live Well

Ohio State University Extension Family and Consumer Sciences

School Meals That Rock

Featuring school nutrition programs that serve kids well

%d bloggers like this: