Fresh Combinations to LOVE this Season

Judi Hunter, Northridge Local Schools Food Services Supervisor, and her staff are always looking for ways to increase fruit and vegetable consumption in their school meal and snack programs. In January, the Northridge staff tried something new and tossed freshly picked herbs into their fruit and vegetable snacks.

Minty Fresh Combinations

The unique fragrances and textures of herbs add something fun and unexpected to a snack. Herbs also add flavor to food without adding salt or fat – increasing student acceptability.

“Any kitchen, whether at home or school, smells fabulous when working with fresh herbs,” explains Hunter. “Just begin chopping them and you draw the attention of every nose in the area!”


A sign of this week’s items builds excitement for the fresh fruit and vegetables.

Raspberries with Mint

Spearmint is a light, sweet herb. Staff tossed raspberries with chopped spearmint and served the combination in cute white serving cups.

Mint can also be added to tea, mixed with fruit salad or sprinkled on top of yogurt. Hunter suggests planting some mint in containers, along a border or near pathways. As students brush up against the plant, the minty fragrance spills into the area.

Fingerling Potatoes with Chives

Chives look a lot like lawn grass – the stems are tall and spikey. Chives add a light oniony taste and can be added to most vegetables as a lighter alternative to onions.

“Our students love potatoes – yet the oblong shape of this potato was new for many of the students. They were eager to try this version,” commented Hunter. The potato/chive combination was very popular. In the future, the staff will offer the cooked version of fingerling potatoes during lunch the same week for further exploration by the budding foodies!

Tomatoes with Basil

Basil is the most commonly used herb in the United States. It adds a peppery, sweet flavor to items and pairs well with tomatoes. The combination of chopped tomatoes served with fresh basil was easy to prepare, and a big hit. Basil is also an easy plant to grow and gives off a nice fragrance in the garden or indoors.

Tomato Salsa with Cilantro

Cilantro is a unique herb – folks tend to love it or not. The flavor is described by some as bright and citrusy; to others it is soapy. Northridge staff made a fresh Pico de Gallo that students loved. It went over so well, plans are being made to add the item to the school lunch menu.

Cilantro appears in many international dishes like chutneys, salsas and pho. Try adding it into one of your taste test events!

Herb plants.

Fresh herb plants are front-and-center in the cafeteria serving line. Students are encouraged to touch and smell the plants.

Taste, Smell & Touch

Herbs really vary in their appearance, smell and taste – each plant is unique. Hunter offers these tips for getting students to experience the beauty of herbs:

  • Encourage students to touch and smell the herbs. Place baskets of fresh herbs in the serving area, available for kids to touch and smell.
  • Use signage to highlight the unique features of each herb. Draw attention to the shape and color of the leaves, as well as list key words that describe the flavor.
  • Build excitement. Each week, Hunter posts the fresh fruits and vegetable snacks on a sign in the lobby. The sign also includes fact sheets that teachers can take into the classroom to discuss the food properties with students.

Apple, Apple & Apple

Teaching students about the subtle variations in food flavors can also be achieved by offering different varieties of the same items. In October and November, staff offered a different type of Michigan-grown apple each week (Jonamac, Honeycrisp, Cortland, Empire, Ida Red and Braeburn).

Hunter created a Google Form and asked teachers to conduct a simple – thumbs up / thumbs down – poll in their classroom. The apple voting took place each week with the final vote occurring on November 8 – Election Day.

Results were posted outside the lunch line. While supplies lasted, the featured apples were also offered with the school meal. The successful event will be repeated – Hunter will limit voting to no more than three weeks though. After three weeks, the excitement was waning.

Voting engages children with the meal and has been shown to increase participation and satisfaction. For additional ideas on voting, see this previous blog post.

Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program

Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Programs (FFVP) provide fresh fruits and veggies to younger students from income-eligible schools. The program benefits are twofold – the items provide a healthful, nutritious snack to young growing bodies; and the exposure builds a behavior of healthy snacking.

Hunter and her staff maximize student exposure to a variety of fresh items. In February, the Northridge FFVP menu features a combination of eight fruits and four vegetables – including strawberry and kiwi blend, black plums and asparagus. Each month also includes kid favorites like bananas, apples, grapes and clementines. For more information, click here.


It Takes a Village

At the Black River Education Center, Food Service Director Bonnie Cooper embraced the proverb that ‘it takes a village’ to create long-term change. Cooper recruited students, teachers, staff, parents and community partners to create a school wellness committee. The 13-member committee worked throughout the year to develop health-enhancing guidelines and programs that would garner district-wide support.

Building a Culture of Health

To build a culture of health, the committee started with updating the district wellness policy. School wellness policies set the expectations for nutrition and activity opportunities offered within the school community. Policies are powerful tools – they can provide leverage for adding programs and improve coordination.

The final policy, approved by the school board in July 2016, included the following key elements:

  • School meal guidelines
  • Smarter Lunchroom strategies
  • Staff qualifications and professional development
  • Classroom celebration recommendations
  • Standards for competitive foods and beverages
  • Drinking water accessibility guidelines and promotion
  • Physical education requirements

Maybe? and Love! ballot boxes nudge students to find a tasty vegetable.

Community Carnival of Wellness

With contributions from the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) and coordination from the new wellness committee, a Get Moving Night was held in March 2016. The event featured some of the new menu items as well as community physical activity partners – 160 students, 80 parents and 25 school members attended the event. The event featured:

  • A 9-hole miniature golf course located in the music room.
  • An obstacle course placed inside the cafeteria and managed by staff from a local fitness center.
  • Shake It Up Fruit Smoothies made with applesauce, 100% pineapple or orange juice and fresh strawberry or vanilla yogurt.
  • A Vegetable Tasting Station featured fresh bell peppers, snap peas, zucchini, cauliflower and broccoli.

More than 220 samples of fresh vegetables were taste tested on the event night. Students voted on their favorites; bell peppers (n=29), broccoli (n=22), snap peas (n=20) and zucchini (n= 21) received a ton of “love it” votes.

Cooper said, “The purpose of the voting was to get students’ opinion in a relaxing, fun atmosphere. These votes helped us create a different variety of vegetables for our lunch menus.”

To promote the carnival event, the cafeteria offered breakfast smoothies every Tuesday in March. Smoothie Tuesday was so popular that it earned a permanent spot on the breakfast menu.


Tri-color pepper cups grabbed student attention.

Parents, students, teachers and nutrition staff agreed – the event was a major success in raising awareness of fitness and improving the attitudes toward fruits and vegetables. People had fun, they learned something new and all activities improved student well being.

“I love these healthy choices for our children while they are at school and these options are so tasty!” remarked one parent during the event.

Ongoing Work

Building a culture of health is ongoing work. The Black River Wellness Team plans to keep up the momentum. Next year, they will work to broaden the scope of the wellness policy to include sleep recommendations.

Vote Now. Vote Often.

Everyone should vote, and they should vote often. Stuff the ballot boxes. Go back and say more. Voting is important because it gives voice to your opinion.

We vote for political candidates, talent show contestants, social media posts, and much more. Why not use voting to help create irresistible school meals?

In school cafeteria voting, there are no red states or blue states – it’s a whole rainbow of colors. Our candidates are green leafy vegetables, red bell peppers, purple grapes, and ruby-colored pomegranates – to name a few.

Vote Now (and How).

OHIO Team Nutrition schools used a variety of ways to capture their students’ response to meals and new items. In school nutrition, asking students to voice their opinion creates menus that children will love, allowing schools to offer meals that nourish students for a day of learning.

Informal Polling

The easiest way to gather feedback is to ask students what they think. Informal polling can be as simple as walking through the cafeteria and asking students what they liked about an item.

Informal polling can also operate like an exit poll. As students leave the line or the cafeteria, staff ask a sample of students for their responses. Results give school nutrition professionals a quick sense of the response to an item.

Informal polling of customers is very easy to implement and requires no preparation work. It also creates a dialogue with current and potential customers. One downside of this quick-response method of information collection is that it may be difficult to summarize and track responses.

Public Declaration

Voting for your favorite candidate does not have to be secretive or require a ballot box. Public “liking” is something that students are quite familiar with.

Summit Academy in Xenia used clothespins and a poster board to collect feedback from their students. After sampling items as part of a fruit and vegetable of the month program, students placed a pin by their response: did they “like all”; “like some; or “like none” of the items sampled.


Students use clothespins to mark their response.

We “like” this method because it teaches students that there are a variety of responses to trying a new food item. In Xenia, participation in taste tests grew over the course of the year, and all students discovered new items that they “liked”.

There are countless ways to create public voting systems. Try one of these:

  • Students place stickers by names of the items they like best.
  • Students place their empty tasting cup on a tray or in a basket to indicate the items they prefer.
  • Students raise their hands to polling questions.

Public declarations require minimal equipment and create a real-time visual picture of the patterns in student responses. This method also allows us to quantify and compare responses to a variety of food items.

Ballot Box

In traditional voting, voters complete a ballot and place it in a ballot box. After all the voting is complete, results are tallied – and a winner is declared. Ballot voting can be fun and suspenseful.

Food Service Director Bonnie Cooper at Black River Education Center created her own ballot boxes to use as part of a family fun night. Students and their parents voted for “Maybe?” items and “Love!” items. The positive-only responses frame the experience for children – and nudges children to look for a maybe or love item!


Maybe? and Love! ballot boxes nudge students to find a tasty vegetable.

Printing ballots and counting responses requires a bit of extra work; however, ballots are great tools for quantifying the number of students who like and might purchase an item. Download ballots here.

Vote Often.

Unlike upcoming November elections, we want our constituents to vote often. A reoccurring process of asking students to provide feedback creates a shared experience in healthful eating. It also reinforces student, and staff, willingness to try new menu items.

Three Tips to Build High Voter Turnout

Regardless of the voting technique, we want high levels of participation. Maximize participation by following these simple tips:

  1. Make it convenient. Incorporate the polling station into the flow of regular meal service.
  1. Reward the act of voting. Stickers are a great way to say thank you. Download “I Voted” stickers here.
  1. Share the election results. Voting is a process, not a single act. An important part of the process is sharing results with the voters and putting their feedback into action. Knowing that your vote counts increases the likelihood of future voting. To share results with students, try one of these ideas:
  • Report the results in the morning announcements – make it fun, like reporting the results of a sporting activity;
  • Post a picture of the winning item at the entrance of the school or cafeteria;
  • Place a blue ribbon by the item when it appears on the serving line.

Let’s go Ohio! Go to the resource section of the blog to download stickers, ballots, and a taste test getting started guide.

The stakes are high. The outcomes are huge. Please – Vote Now. Vote Often.

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

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!

11 Reasons to Hold a Taste Testing Event!

Kids are creatures of habit. They eat what they like and can be reluctant to try new things. Kids are more likely to take a bite of something new, rather than take a whole serving. Creating a taste test event is a great way to introduce bite-sized samples of new food items in a fun, pressure-free way!


A taste test event can be beneficial for both students and cafeteria staff. Below are our top 11 reasons to organize a tasting event – it was difficult to limit the list to just 11!

  1. Exposes students to new foods. A taste test event can get students thinking about food items in different non-traditional ways. For example, vegetables can be introduced as toppings for an entrée, as dips, or spreads for deli wraps.
  2. Learn about student preferences. Not only can you identify food item preference, but also preference for food preparation. Find out what students like and put it on the menu!
  3. Builds excitement. Create a buzz about taste test day! Use this event to promote local/seasonal foods, or sample a veggie grown from the school garden.
  4. TIME. When students enter the serving area, they are focused on selecting their lunch quickly. Stopping to try something new may not fit with their purpose. So – offer tastes outside the serving area or as grab and go items.
  5. Increases efficiency and decreases waste. Familiarizing students with new foods can ensure that the food item is marketable before appearing on the menu.
  6. Allows staff to tap into the creative side of work. Encourage participation from the entire staff and gather ideas for a fun, successful event!
  7. Opportunity to promote vegetables. Use a taste test event to nudge vegetables into the spotlight! Students may be more willing to try a vegetable item when other foods are not competing with it.
  8. Education. Taste testing is a quick, casual way to teach students about local food items, food properties, and healthy food choices.
  9. Opportunity to reinforce the behavior of trying new foods. Students may be motivated to taste test by watching their peers and teachers try new foods.
  10. Opens dialogue with current and potential customers. Use this event to increase consumption and participation! Ask about the likes and dislikes from packers, snackers and meal grabbers. Use the feedback to turn packers and snackers into meal-purchase backers!
  11. HAVE FUN! Create a theme for your event – incorporate music, have volunteers dress for the occasion. The idea is to create a fun, welcoming atmosphere for the students. This will be a day that kids will look forward to!

For additional information on how to conduct a taste test event, check out the Getting Started Guide under our Resources tab above. Downloadable posters, stickers and comment cards can be found on the Taste Test Materials page, also under the Resources tab above.

Taste Test Recipes

Are you looking for some new ideas to spice up your menu? Here are a few of our favorite, simple recipes to taste test!

  1. Pineapple Slaw – the recipe blends broccoli, pineapple, green onion, cream, sugar and few other spices into a sweet, creamy spread kids are going to love! This is a perfect addition for any deli sandwich or wrap!
  2. Corn and Bean Salsa – this recipe blends corn, black beans, tomatoes, red bell pepper and a mixture of herbs and spices to create a fresh orange/lime flavored salsa. This recipe is sure to win over students and is a perfect addition to a build-your-own burrito day!

You can find these recipes, and many more, under the Resources tab above!


Screenshot_2015-10-07-12-54-13 (2)During the month of November we will be running a basket challenge! Put your best basket to the test and win one of our 18 x 24, full color foam board Taste Test posters. We’ll also include 500 of our “Official Taste Tester” stickers!

Send us your basket photo to Every entry will receive 100 of our “Official Taste Tester” stickers. The winner will be announced the last week of November.

Check back next week for a post on how to create your award winning basket!

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kids and food, in school and out

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Ohio State University Extension Family and Consumer Sciences

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