Junior Chef Competitions

An innovative strategy for engaging students with school food

  • CAF Programs
  • December 03, 2015
  • Comments

One-cup teamwork, ½ cup competition, 2 cups of fun and a pinch of creativity are the key ingredients in a school Junior Chef Competition. Stir them together and what is the result? Happy young culinarians and delicious new school food dishes made by kids, for kids. 

Junior Chef (or “Iron Chef”) Competitions are an innovative and effective way to engage students of all ages, their parents, local chefs and community members in your school food program. The events are useful teaching tools that not only allow students to exercise their culinary chops, but give them insight into just how much work it takes to run a successful meal program. Each fall and spring, the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) of Boulder, Colorado hosts Junior Chef Competitions that bring student culinarians together for competition, fun and learning. Here’s a taste of how they’ve made this kind of culinary programming a great success.

Engaging Middle Schoolers in Culinary Competition

It’s 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, a spring afternoon and young chefs from BVSD middle schools eagerly enter the school cafeteria. Team work stations are set up, the pantry for selecting menu items awaits the eager young chefs, and the judges table is ready for seating. A charge of nervous excitement hangs in the air as student chefs wash their hands, tie their hair back, put on hats, and ready the cutting boards, knives and cooking supplies. Parents, teachers, friends and community members gather round, ready to watch the culinary action. The 2015 Junior Chef Competition is about to begin! Teams come to the cook-off well prepared and eager to get started. After all, they have been meeting for weeks to plan, practice and prepare for the chance to have their recipe added to next year’s lunch menu. 

​The Junior Chef Competition at the Secondary level allows students to contribute to their school lunch menu while learning about how the National School Lunch Program operates. The competition showcases the hard work and creativity of Middle School teams across the district as they are challenged to plan a reimbursable lunch menu that includes the appropriate meal components (meat/meat alternate, grain, milk, fruit and vegetable), follows the USDA National School Lunch guidelines, and costs no more than $1.20 for the entire meal.

Each recipe is judged on the following criteria: 

  • USDA nutrition guideline requirements,
  • cost per serving for the complete meal,
  • appearance,
  • taste,
  • organization,
  • hygiene and food safety, and
  • replicability for large scale food service. 

 “I love to cook and play games with my friends that are modeled after the cooking shows,” comments one BVSD Middle School contestant. “It’s a really fun way to learn what it takes to be on one of those shows as well as think about what goes into cooking a meal, especially for so many people.” The students appreciate the practical culinary training, and the excitement that competition creates is electric! “I thought that the actual competition was very exciting,” one young chef reflects.  “Everyone seemed very excited and I think that added to the over all excitement in the room. My partner and I were very proud of what we made.” 

The culinary creations are judged by an expert chef panel, and the winning recipe is included in the 2015-2016 BVSD district-wide lunch menu. With a theme of “Vegetarian Entrée”, this year’s Grand Prize winner was “The Platt Pack” (the Platt Middle School team), who served up Platt Kashmiri Rice with Sweet Chili Tofu, now a welcome addition to Boulder’s school lunchrooms. 

Transforming Elementary Students into Junior Chefs

The district’s Elementary competition brings teams together to create the “Best After School Snack” using fresh, healthy ingredients; a fun, friendly way to engage the district’s youngest eaters.

BVSD hosted the inaugural Elementary competition as part of the 2014 Harvest Festival, a fall event celebrating local, seasonal food. The popularity of the event became clear when participation rates doubled the following year. More than 30 students from grades K-5, representing 7 different schools, showcased their culinary prowess during the 2015 event. Parents, friends, family members and teachers flocked to support their junior chefs.

At the elementary level, team leaders (parents or teachers) are given a list of ingredients that will be available for use. From this list, teams are tasked with creating snacks that include a grain, protein and fruit or vegetable. Up to 2 additional ingredients can be requested per team. With 30 minutes to prepare their dishes, teams know their entries will be judged on taste, creativity, and appearance. This year, the winning snack was pesto pizza, and runners-up included cheesy bean stuffed peppers and smoothies. All snacks were healthy, creative and delicious.

“The Iron Chef Competition is a way to learn more about fresh food and encourages kids to want to cook and be adventurous eaters,” says a BVSD 4th grader. "It got me to realize what foods I really like and how passionate I am about cooking. I even learned some skills from my friend during practice!” The event cultivates teamwork and sportsmanship. A team member from a runner up dish reports, “we worked well as a team, we reminded each other things, and I honestly think we were happy about getting second place even though we wished we had gotten first. I feel proud for my school.’’ 

Key Ingredients for a Successful Event

  • Sponsors are key to making the competition a truly special event. From covering food costs to purchasing t-shirts, gift cards and cooking supplies, prizes from local sponsors can help elevate the event experience. About two months prior to the event, or even earlier, start recruiting potential local sponsors: Restaurant Supply stores, Grocery Chains, Health Clubs, Florists, or other local businesses for potential monetary support or in-kind donations.
  • Reach out to community VIPs, local chefs and media about a month prior to the event to stir up enthusiasm and interest. 
  • Identify a willing and interested adult mentor at each school to organize a team. This could be a teacher, parent, or other school staff member who has a passion for food. Make it clear the recipes and dishes should represent student creativity and input; the role of the adult is facilitator.
  • Invite a lively and talented emcee to ‘host’ the event. This could be a student, local personality, employee of the school district, or other person well suited to emcee. 

The Impact

The benefits of hosting this competition are bountiful. “It shows that we respect our customers and the community because we’re asking for their creativity and input into our district menus,” says Stephen Menyhart, BVSD Food Services District Manager and Junior Chef Coordinator. When asked about other benefits, Menyhart responds with ease. “Guest chef judges gain insight into the mission and goals of our department and are often surprised at the level of detail and thoughtfulness that goes into the student dishes. The event also demonstrates to families and students that the Food Services department has a true interest in student engagement.” 

From the student perspective, a culinary event  helps them learn and appreciate what it takes to get lunch on their tray each day. They gain valuable leadership, organization and presentation skills, and most importantly, it’s fun! Just ask the experts: “I would definitely do this again,” says one satisfied middle schooler. “It was a good learning experience and it really made me think about how much effort goes into the school lunch program.”

Interested in hosting your own Junior Chef Competition? The Lunch Box has free downloadable tools and resources that can be tailored to meet your event specifications. From a comprehensive How-to guide, to sponsor letters, guidelines and judging sheets, you’ll find all you need to host a successful Junior Chef event. As they say in the Iron Chef arena, “allez cuisine!”

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