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Tracie Suter

The Benefits of Scratch Cooking in K-12 Kitchens

Scratch cooking in your school kitchen may seem like a daunting task. And yes, it can be. But the benefits of scratch cooking, and the different methods and equipment available, make it easier and more cost effective than you might think.


First, what is scratch cooking? Traditionally, scratch cooking means making food from whole ingredients and prioritizing raw proteins, whole grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables with the intention of creating nutritious and delicious meals for students. Hoping to minimize processed, pre-packaged ‘heat-and-serve’ school meals, many schools use scratch cooking as a way to keep students full, nourished and growing. 

The great thing about scratch cooking, however, is that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. What you might not know is there’s something called speed scratch. Speed scratch allows you to incorporate more nutritious ingredients while also taking timing, kitchen size and staff allocation into account. Speed scratch is a concept where you make certain elements of the meal then mix with pre-made ingredients. For example, spaghetti can be made with precooked noodles and using a pre-made blend of spices that you add into a scratch-made sauce from your 40 gallon braising pan. The fun of speed-scratch cooking is that there are a lot of culinary aspects and it allows you to feed your students healthier meals without a full transition to scratch.


The benefits of scratch cooking essentially boil down to the benefits of using healthier, whole ingredients over processed food, however there are also benefits to workforce creation as well. 

According to the National Institute of Behavioral Health, children who receive whole, nutrient-rich foods have increased cognitive function compared to children who lack these essential nutrients. Better-quality diets are also linked to higher test scores, longer attention spans, increased work capacity, and more class participation. 

Well-nourished children are tardy or absent less often, require fewer visits to the school nurse, and are less susceptible to obesity, diabetes, and a variety of other health problems. 

School cafeterias are frequently the biggest "restaurants" in their areas. According to a 2011 study, every dollar spent locally on school food boosts the economy by $1.86, and every job created by a district's purchasing leads to a 2.43 percent rise in employment overall. Schools and other large institutions working together can help generate enough demand to maintain regional agriculture. 

Scratch cooked meals drive increased meal participation at schools. A study done by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation showed programs that prepared more foods from scratch and increased the use of salad bars were more likely to report that student participation in lunches rose or was unchanged from the 2011-12 school year to 2014-15 as opposed to schools that did not. Conversely, declines in participation were seen most often by kitchens that purchased more commercially prepared foods or decreased menu options.

Additionally, you can much more easily customize your menu to students’ needs and wants, increasing the odds that you’re cooking food the kids will actually eat. 

Districts report drastically decreasing their water, carbon, and waste footprints by switching to more whole-food meals. The usage of single-use disposables, which are common in processed meals, can also be decreased in schools by serving fresh, scratch-cooked meals. 

84 percent of schools reported rising or stable combined revenue with the introduction of healthier standards. More than half (54 percent) of districts saw higher combined revenue in the 2014-15 school year compared with a year earlier. Almost a third (30 percent) said total revenue remained level.


Actually, it’s not as expensive as you might think. A 2020 study of California public schools found that nutrition departments with high levels of scratch cooking spent the same total percentage of their budgets on food and labor — 87 percent — as those that did little to no scratch cooking.


The steps vary for each district, but it’s best to start in your school. Gaining support from parents and administrators will increase the odds of broader support from school boards and policymakers. If other schools within your district have implemented scratch cooking, start by talking to them to identify pitfalls before they happen. 

Once you have the green light, it’s time to get planning. The most important step is to make sure you have the right equipment. To maximize output, minimize effort, and increase the quality of your scratch cooking we recommend a braising pan, combi oven, and heated holding cabinets. These items will allow for flexibility to vary menu items as well as cooking methods. When speed scratch cooking we recommend using your steamer to retherm bagged products–preserving the nutrition and natural vibrant colors. Another great item when scratch cooking is a Berkel vacuum sealer, allowing you to cook bulk items, like ground beef for tacos, vegetables for stir-fry, or seasonal soup, then portion them in bags, vacuum seal, and freeze for later use. Additionally, you can finish your frozen items on a griddle for a fresh sear and appealing finish before serving or placing in a heated holding cabinet for safe storage until service. 

Next, draft a menu cycle, which allows you to project out your ingredient needs and build a list of products you want to buy, and how much you want to buy of those items. For example, Tuesdays you could use ground meat for either tacos or taco salads. Wednesdays could always be breakfast for lunch days. However you plan, having consistency helps you plan and helps students and parents know what to expect. 

Next, find sources and compare prices for these items. This can be the most time-consuming part. Typically, your school’s food vendor will offer some whole food options and local farms are another great resource. 

Finally, tell the world (or at least the school) with some in-school marketing. Encourage participation in meal planning and get kids excited with themed meals. Check out The Lunch Box for more ideas. 

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