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Family-style meal program intros new dishes, teaches social skills

Nutrition Group’s Kids Around the Table initiative lets groups of students share food, learn table manners and engage in polite conversation while trying some healthy and tasty new foods.

What might be a good way to get kids to try new foods while also teaching them some socialization and good behavior skills?

That was the challenge tackled by a new program recently developed and deployed by The Nutrition Group, a Pennsylvania-based foodservice contract company serving the K-12 market.

Michelle Marker, director of programs and marketing for Nutrition Group, says the idea came out of discussions with client district representatives who were looking for a way to better leverage Nutrition Group’s Farm to Fork program through some strategy that could prompt kids to try new dishes.

“We started talking about a way we could not only create some chef-inspired meals but have kids eating family style [while] trying new foods and at the same time teaching them some table manners.”

Thus, Kids Around the Table was born.

First piloted earlier this year at Chartiers Valley Intermediate School in Pittsburgh, Kids Around the Table consists of a two-week stretch of lunch periods during which a group of students dines family style each day on a menu of scratch-cooked, healthy dishes incorporating farm-fresh ingredients, meanwhile learning correct table settings and engaging in polite conversation.

The group of participating students turns over after each two-week period, with each school free to decide how to allocate the spaces. Most do it on a by-grade basis, so the participating kids in each group are at the same level.

One student at each table is chosen each day as captain with responsibility for bringing the food to the table and overseeing its serving. Meanwhile, each student is responsible for laying out his or her own place setting, using a map on the placemat he/she receives.

Foods are portioned and/or served in a way that ensures each child receives a federally compliant meal, as the program is designed to stay in line with National School Lunch Program regulations. Proper serving size information is included with the meals, along with portioning servingware, so the meals also serve an educational function about proper portioning.

“We encourage conversation among themselves,” Marker says, “including talking about what they’re eating, what they like and don’t like. They also have to decide each day who will be captain the next day. And if there is extra food, they have to work out how to share it.”

The Nutrition Group

The day’s Kids Around the Table menu selections await the young diners. The dishes include bone-in barbeque chicken, pizza green beans, lime-kissed cantaloupe and melon, breadsticks and oatmeal squares.

The day’s Kids Around the Table menu selections await the young diners. The dishes include bone-in barbeque chicken, pizza green beans, lime-kissed cantaloupe and melon, breadsticks and oatmeal squares. Photo: The Nutrition Group

The menu, different each day during the two-week cycle, consists of several dishes, from entrees like bone-in barbecue chicken, quiche, meatloaf and turkey supreme with dressing to salads such as five bean, sumi salad (Asian-style cole slaw) and kale Caesar salad.

Sides include steamed brown rice, whole-grain Spanish rice, sweet potato bread squares, oven-roasted carrots, local harvest bake and mashed potatoes, along with fruits or fruit salads. The lime-kissed melon cubes (honeydew and cantaloupe tossed with lime zest) is a special favorite, Marker notes.

Children with food allergies or diet restrictions are accommodated with a dish as close as possible to what the others in the group are getting.

The Kids Around the Table menu is completely different from what is being served in the traditional lunch line for the rest of the student body, Marker stresses.

“It’s a way for us to introduce new foods because we get immediate feedback on what they like and don’t like,” she explains.

The group setting encourages a subtle peer pressure to participate in trying different things. Marker relates one instance in which a child refused to try the kale salad until group encouragement (read: mild teasing) prompted him to give it a small taste.

“He ended being the last one to leave the lunchroom because he was determined to finish the bowl of kale that was sitting there,” she laughs. “He couldn’t believe how good it was!”

The program also includes take-home recipes of the dishes being served so families can make them if they wish, and each child who completes the program gets a certificate of achievement and a chef hat.

Most of the dishes on the Kids Around the Table menu cycle were developed by a Nutrition Group corporate chef based on responses from kids he met with while touring company-managed lunchrooms and asking what they would like to see on lunch menus. Everything was validated by company nutritionists to ensure compliance with federal school meal regulations.

Since the pilot at Chartiers Valley, which launched in late January, the program has expanded to two more districts, but that will probably be it for this school year, Marker says.

“We’ve brought managers and foodservice directors from other districts in to see the program and its impact, and we’re hoping to open it in several more next year.”

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