New nutritional guidelines stick school directors in kitchen battle

New nutritional guidelines stick school directors in kitchen battle

Credit: Freddy Hunt /

Members of the School Nutrition Association face off in a cooking competition at the Culinary Institute of America at San Antonio on Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013. Each team was challenged to make meals that adhere to new national nutrition standards in place for all school meals.


by Freddy Hunt /

Posted on January 12, 2013 at 6:54 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 13 at 2:02 PM

SAN ANTONIO -- The kitchen at the Culinary Institute of America was an example of what every school cafeteria in America should look like.

It also looked a little like a Food Network show.

On Saturday, nutrition directors from school districts all over the country went head to head to prepare tasty and cost-efficient recipes that meet the new national nutrition standards.

But before they got cooking, each of the six teams hit the Pearl Farmers Market with $25, collecting whatever fresh ingredients they want to feature in their recipes.

Each team was also provided about a pound of chicken, some light tuna, risotto and whole wheat tortillas -- and a whole "pantry" of other fresh ingredients they could use if needed.

It was just like Food Network's 'Chopped' -- only the chefs aren't real chefs and they had way longer than 30 minutes to prepare their meals. However, each team did have a CIA chef providing some help.

Under the new guidelines, cafeterias are required to include more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and less sodium, calories and trans-fat. The tricky part: preparing meals that kids will eat.

"We can't get too wild because kids don't eat it. You know it's got to look a little like what they're used to," said Melanie Konarik, the director of child nutrition for the Spring Independent School District near Houston.

And if the kids don't eat it, they don't reap the benefits of the new nutritional guidelines. The teams were challenged, in some capacity, to disguise the Texas-grown spinach, Swiss chard, beets and other fresh produce they found at the farmers market.

Some of the cunning recipes included an avocado ranch dressing, jalapeno relish, risotto fries, southwest tuna wraps and black bean soup served in a tortilla bowl.

Shirley Brown is the director of product training for Rich Products, a food supplier the serves school cafeterias nationwide. She was also a special judge for the cookoff, and was tickled by how many teams went after orange vegetables, like sweet potatoes, carrots and squashes.

"In the new regulations they have to serve more orange vegetables," she explained. "More dark green and orange vegetables and red vegetables."

Goodbye greasy french fries. Hello baked sweet potato fries.

Finding a tasty and kid-approved recipe like sweet potato fries is exactly what the teams were striving for. They were also playing with new dipping sauces that contained less fat and sodium.

One team came up with a chicken tostada dressing made from lime juice, olive oil, vinegar, yogurt, southwest seasoning and cilantro.

Each team was judged on creativity, team cooperation and planning and developments. That includes keeping the meal cost to just under $2.50 a plate, which is about the target cost of actual school lunches.

But creativity in the cafeteria can only go so far. If a kid decides he or she doesn't like risotto, they won't eat it, even though they'd probably be hard pressed to tell the difference between risotto and brown rice. Most nutrition experts would agree that eating habits aren't shaped by school lunches, but rather around the dinner table at home.

Saturday's cookoff was part of the School Nutrition Association's Child Nutrition Industry Conference, which runs Jan. 13 through Jan. 15, 2013.