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Mike Burke
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10.5.20

How to Incorporate Seasonal Ingredients Into a K-12 School Menu

While cooking with seasonal ingredients is currently one of the food industry’s biggest trends, it’s hardly a new one. After all, humankind has by necessity eaten in-season, locally sourced food since the beginning of our time on earth. While advancements to everything from food preservation to transportation have given us many more options, there are many compelling reasons to eat seasonally whenever we can. It follows that there are also compelling reasons to incorporate seasonal ingredients into school lunches.

Here’s a closer look at the advantages of seasonal eating, along with tips for embracing seasonal ingredients into your K-12 school meal program.

The Benefits of Seasonal Eating

While we now have access to the same fruits and vegetables throughout the year, sticking with in-season produce has many advances, including the following:

Better flavor -- Getting kids to eat more fruits and vegetables is a priority. One way to encourage this making them taste good. Produce that’s been picked at peak ripeness is more flavorful than produce that was picked prior to ripeness and transported across the country.

Greater Nutrition -- Out-of-season produce has a long way to go before it reaches a child’s breakfast or lunch tray. In addition to being less flavorful, it’s also less nutritious. This is because nutrient availability is cut off early when fruits and vegetables aren’t allowed to ripen. In choosing seasonal produce, you also lessen exposure to the use of chemicals designed to slow down ripening and genetic modification. Furthermore, eating seasonally also means kids are exposed to a greater variety of produce - thereby supporting a more balanced diet.

Increase Affordability: Because in-season produce is abundant, it costs less. Conversely, out-of-season produce is less readily available, and requires more travel time and/or additional expenses if grown in a greenhouse.

Community Support: Buying produce locally connects schools with their surrounding communities while supporting local farms and farmers. When kids see where their food is coming from, who is growing it, and how it makes its way onto their plates, they become more aware and engaged in healthy eating.

A Positive Environmental Impact -- Trucking produce across the country requires gas. Not only is this added on to the cost of the food, but it also adds to the carbon footprint. An added benefit? It’s a valuable teaching moment for kids.

Tips for Incorporating Seasonal Ingredients

Incorporating seasonal ingredients doesn’t have to mean overhauling your entire school lunch program. Instead, there are a variety of things you can do.

1. Start small.

Eating seasonally isn’t an “all or nothing” deal. You don’t have to plan an entire meal from seasonal ingredients. Narrowing the focus and using just one or two ingredients is a manageable and yet effective starting point. Some school programs also introduce “Harvest of the Month” programs which routinely showcase a seasonal star.

2. Be versatile.

 There’s more than one way to incorporate a seasonal ingredient into meals for more efficient and cost-effective operations. Take apples, for example, which can be incorporated into muffins, breakfast bars, oatmeal and more. Sliced, baked and sprinkled with cinnamon, apples also make a crunchy and satisfying treat.

3. Make it cultural.

A variety of foods equals a variety of nutrients. The more opportunities kids have to try different types of food, the less likely they are to become picky eaters and the more likely they are to develop their full potential. In California, for example, the dynamic 6-5-4 School Lunch Matrix identifies six dishes students love, five ethnic flavor profiles, and four seasons which together add up to a practical, adaptable and creative approach to school lunch menus. The five flavor profiles, comprising African, Asian, European/Mediterranean, Latin American, and Middle Eastern/Indian foods, also reflect the state’s multicultural constituency. Recipes include tabbouleh salad in fall; ham and yam pizza in winter; Chinese chicken salad in spring; and chili verde in summer.

Lastly, keep in mind that having the right equipment can make incorporating seasonal produce even easier. For example, braising pans make cooking and serving veggie-rich soups and stews a snap.

School lunch programs aim to provide students with well-balanced, nutritious and affordable meals. Menus which embrace in-season produce check all the boxes -- and then some. And while it may take some initial upfront time and effort, the results are well worth the reward when it comes to supporting the health and wellness of kids and families.

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