The Flavor Lab station allows kids to customize low-sodium spice levels from Sriracha to chipotle to lemon pepper and more.

Winning kids with extreme flavor

Wyoming school district pumps up bold, spicy, sour, in-your-face flavors kids love without adding salt.

For the past few years, the amount of sodium allowed in school lunches has taken a nosedive, arguably taking a lot of flavor with it. While the strictest sodium regulations appear to be letting up, solutions for kicking up the flavor of school lunch without adding salt are still very necessary.

At Campbell County School District (CCSD) 1 in Gillette, Wyo., about one-quarter of recipes on the five-week menu cycle are made from scratch and about half are speed-scratch recipes. That means opportunities for the kitchen crew to experiment with building flavor profiles from the ground up.

Bryan Young, director of nutrition services at CCSD, says salt-free seasonings have been the way to go, addressing an issue that may be an unintended consequence of the low-sodium requirements: food waste.

“If kids aren’t taking it, there’s increased waste; we’ve reported on that because we account for everything,” Young says.

So making food that appeals to kids is essential, something made even more difficult by the proximity of fast food restaurants to the two high schools’ open campuses. (“Little Caesar’s, McDonald’s, Subway…you name it, and it’s close,” Young says.)

Fighting back with flavor, the culinary team has found that for the secondary school age and up, they’re into mostly one thing: spicy hot food.

“We can’t serve enough Sriracha stuff,” Young says. “We add it when we make taco meat, chicken fajitas, Mexican rice, chili and soup.”

Sometimes those items get spiced up with jalapeno or chipotle spices in powdered form.

The school has also experimented with the Flavor Lab Flavor Station, kits made by Kent Precision Foods in which a variety of low- to no-sodium seasonings in shakers are available for a do-it-yourself flavor boost. Kent Precision Foods estimates 1,500 of the kits have been sold to schools around the country.

For example, a side of broccoli could get a shake of ranch seasoning or a chicken sandwich could get a taste of barbecue teriyaki or Buffalo wing flavor. Chipotle spice on rice and pineapples is another good combo kids can add to their own entrées, Young says.

For the most part, the spices are being used for scratch and semi-scratch cooking. Lately, the students have been really into ramen and soba noodles that lean toward the spicy side. Other flavor-forward menu items include mango-habanero salmon and chicken verde tacos with spicy jalapeno.

And this school year, a new item will debut: Philly cheesesteak with a side of lemon-pepper green beans and a few variations of veggie couscous with zipped up flavor.

Young also plans to continue serving beef and pork roasts, a true secret weapon when working with one central production kitchen and schools that need to reheat (and perk up the flavor).

“We’ll season roasts, then cook and slice them and send them out cold for schools to reheat and add au jus,” Young says. “The au jus can be seasoned, too. We’re going to try chipotle spice.”

For dessert and snacks, the students prefer another bold taste: sour.

“There’s a company that makes applesauce in flavors like sour apple and birthday cake, and they do so well for our elementary kids,” Young says. “Kids are just so much smarter now and they see so much more. They even like spicy candy. They see it on social media.”

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