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


Food Factor Wheel adds a Spin to Taste Test Events

Schools in northeast Ohio put a new spin on nudging kids to eat their vegetables. Students step up, spin the Food Factor Wheel, and take a taste. In this game – everyone is a winner.

Boardman Local Schools

WHEEL.jpg“We are trying the wheel because if they do try it without the pressure of having it on their tray, then maybe they will say, ‘Oh, let me take one little bite,’ and they will like it versus having a bunch of it on their tray that they are intimidated by and then end up throwing away,” said Boardman food service director Natalie Winkle.

“You have to introduce it slowly so they will get accustom to it,” said Winkle. At Boardman, students tried one or more of the following items:

  • Roasted carrots
  • Edamame
  • Spinach
  • Parmesan zucchini straws
  • Rosemary and garlic roasted black beans
  • Beets
  • Sweet, spicy garbanzo beans

Beets were the big, surprising hit. Some students didn’t recognize the item – but that didn’t stop them from trying (and liking) the purple vegetable. Roasted black-beans were also very popular, especially after the principal gave the item two thumbs up.

Click HERE to see a video of the Food Factor Wheel in action!

Springfield Local Schools

TRAY.jpgSpringfield food service supervisor Joyce Dicks offered students a taste of some out-of-the-ordinary fruits – pomegranate, kiwi, and star fruit – with more common options of blueberries, cantaloupe, cherry tomatoes, eggplant and yellow squash. “It was our first taste test event, and we wanted to get their attention – the variety of shapes and colors really created a lot of interest.  That said, we were surprised by the number of students who had not previously tried fresh cantaloupe or blueberries.”

Most of the 400 Springfield Local students sampled a fruit or vegetable and 90% of the kids found a fruit or vegetable that they liked. “That’s a huge success!” observed Dicks.

Springfield plans to build on the momentum by offering the kid-tested items within the menu or as part of the salad bar.  Plans are also underway to start a school garden where students grow their own greens.

The next taste test will feature roasted vegetables. “Roasting vegetables brings out a different, sweeter flavor in vegetables – we think our kids will be pleasantly surprised by the taste,” adds Dicks.


Researchers have found that kids become more interested in fruits and vegetables with repeated positive exposure, and exposure to a variety of items.

“We are going to do evaluations and see how the items perform when they appear on the menu. Based upon the overwhelming positive responses at the event, we expect fruit and vegetable selection to increase,” said Beth Stefura with the OSU Extension.

Next week, read about the creative way Austintown Local used pizza dough to introduce a spice bar and what happened when Sebring Schools added spaghetti squash to the wheel!

Sign up HERE to hold a taste test event at your school and receive 500 Official Taste Tester stickers. Click “Register Now” and receive your Taste Test Toolkit.


Contributors of this blog post include:

Beth Stefura, M Ed, RD, LD

Educator, OSU Extension

Natalie Winkle

Food Service Director, Boardman Food Services

Boardman Local Schools

Joyce Dicks

Nutrition Services Supervisor, Springfield School Nutrition

Springfield Local Schools

OHIO Statewide Taste Test Event!

Take a Taste Banner

Kids are creatures of habit, with a reluctance to try new foods. They’re more likely to take a bite of something new, rather than take a whole serving. A taste test event is a fun, pressure-free way to introduce bite-sized samples of new food items!

We’ve declared February as “OHIO Taste Test Month.” Join us in creating a statewide taste test event. Our goal is to reach ten thousand students. Help us achieve our goal and register today!

By registering, you will receive a Taste Test Toolkit, complete with recipes, stickers and promotional materials you’ll need to get started. Recipes include: slaws/salsa, dips/spreads, fresh combinations and spices.

Event Registration

To receive your Taste Test Toolkit, click on the “Register Today” button in the top left corner of the blog site. If you are using our mobile site, scroll to the bottom of the page to find the “Register Today” button. If you are having difficulty registering, or are unable to register, please contact us at Ohiosmarterlunchrooms614@gmail.com.

Event Resources

  • Purpose. Taste test events are beneficial for both students and cafeteria staff. Introducing new food items and identifying preferences is the key! You can find the many benefits associated in our  11 Reasons to Hold a Taste Test Event blog post.
  • Increasing Participation. The idea is to implement strategies that build interest. Check out our Taste Test Getting Started Guide to identify prime, place and appeal techniques to peak the interest of students.
  • Sampling and Recipe Ideas. Need help with taste test sample ideas? We’ve created a list of Suggested Sampling Ideas collected from various schools. Recipes are also included!
  • Event Materials. We offer a wide variety of free, downloadable event materials. Click on our Taste Test Event Resource page for stickers, posters and feedback card templates.
  • Evaluation and Measurement. Success of your event can be measured through appropriate documentation.  Download our Taste Test Event Evaluation Form and track your progress!
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