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Inside the Lunch Box – Recipes and Menus

Getting back to scratch cooking in schools

Twenty years ago, scratch cooking in schools was in decline. Processing commodities into ready-to-serve items—complete with CN labels—aligned well with slashing personnel budgets and out-of-date kitchen equipment. Food innovation was defined by manufacturing, ease of use, and an expectation that cooking was not required.

Not surprisingly, obesity rates have risen over the last twenty years. Today, approximately 18% of children from ages 6 to 19 are considered obese. But in 2007, when the Center for Disease Control and the Institute of Medicine were first tasked with studying the nutrition standards in school food, there was indication that food service was headed in a new, healthier direction. Three years later, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed and the regulations asserted that scratch cooking was compatible with the new regulations. In order to keep their customer base, manufacturers reformulated their ready-to-serve foods to meet the regulations.

In 2002, long before the Chef Ann Foundation or HHFKA existed, Chef Ann Cooper dreamed up the idea of a school lunch digital toolkit. At the time, she was cooking at a private school that was essentially a lab for feeding kids real food. For a chef turned lunch lady, using processed food was never a consideration; scratch cooking was the norm. Other school districts that visited the Ross School café and witnessed students eating all sorts of vegetables (willingly!) kept asking for the recipes. That sparked the idea to seek funding, and in 2008 we began creating the first iteration of The Lunch Box.

Now, six years later, we have reinvented The Lunch Box to provide school districts with new tools to create scratch-cooked meals that support Lunchroom Education and healthful eating habits in America’s youth. Despite the current debate about rolling back the nutrition standards for school meals, many districts work daily to prepare delicious meals and introduce kids to real food and flavors. It’s important for our country to remember that scratch cooking is not something from a bygone era. No. In fact, new research published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics earlier this year illustrates that cooking from scratch is not more expensive than serving processed foods—a common argument from the opposition.

So, how does a school district make the change to scratch cooking? For starters, The Lunch Box has a new recipe module that improves upon the original version by using Horizon Software International’s One Source software, which provides the recipes in a format familiar to K-12 food service professionals. The recipe database is searchable by name, number, or category. The recipe tabs provide USDA meal contribution analysis, nutritional analysis, and cost analysis. Users can scale any recipe and are able to export the recipe in either a pdf or excel format. The current database was shared with us by Boulder Valley School District and includes over 200 recipes.

In addition, the new site offers downloadable breakfast and lunch Menu Cycles that include USDA certification documentation and nutritional analysis. We also have some menu planning tools if you want to create your own. So, welcome to The Lunch Box… and welcome back to scratch cooking!

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