Oklahoma Department of Education and OSU train nutritionists to better meet meal standards

Oklahoma’s Cooking For Kids program puts school nutritionists in touch with local chefs to improve school meals. (Oklahoma State University / provided)

Oklahoma’s Cooking For Kids program puts school nutritionists in touch with local chefs to improve school meals. (Oklahoma State University / provided)

When you hear the words “school lunch,” what food comes to mind? It probably isn’t fresh fruits and vegetables or whole grains.

While square pizza and canned pears are most likely the fare conjured up in one’s memory, Cooking For Kids three-day skill development training courses are helping child nutritionists at school districts around Oklahoma learn how to better provide healthy and nutritious meals to their students.

Since 2014, the Cooking For Kids skill development training courses taught by trained chefs have seen 576 child nutrition specialists from 142 school districts complete the program at little to no cost.

“It’s important to know that our kids are eating healthy and nutritious foods,” Oklahoma State University Department of Nutritional Sciences Education Outreach Coordinator Cass Ring said.

The program is run by the Oklahoma Department of Education and OSU Department of Nutritional Sciences with goals of increasing availability of freshly prepared foods, increased student participation in school meals and expanded public support for child nutrition programs.

Cooking For Kids emerged in response to the stricter standards for school lunch meal patterns put in place by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2012. These regulations require cafeterias in schools across the nation to offer more fruits, vegetables and whole grains while limiting sodium, unhealthy fats and calories. In 2015, similar rules were put in place for a la carte lunch lines.

Cooking For Kids provides a solution to the challenge of providing nutritious food on a limited budget by teaching nutrition specialists how to plan healthy, affordable lunches with less plate waste.

The training programs also include instruction on vegetable and whole grain cookery, knife skills, taste training, flavor building, cooking methods, sensory training, standardized recipes and smarter lunchrooms.

School districts that send their nutritionists to the training see an increase in the knowledge and use of scratch cooking, smarter lunchroom practices and the use of taste testing to help students choose healthier foods.

Upon completion of the training, nutrition specialists will have the opportunity for a year of consultation from a professional chef. Nutrition specialists work one-on-one with the chefs developing action plans for their school’s lunch program.

“They get the skills they need to take their program to the next level,” Ring said. “One year, a school wanted to implement a salad bar into their program.”

Thirty school districts have participated in the yearlong chef consultations, and those schools have seen an increase in student consumption of fruit and grains as well as the use of fewer convenience foods in entrees.

“It’s amazing to see the changes that schools are making and to be a part of it,” Ring said.

A Cooking For Kids training series began Tuesday and runs through July 27 at Francis Tuttle Technology Center, and is offered in Tulsa, Okmulgee, Stillwater, Alva and Bartlesville. Visit cookingforkids.ok.gov to register. The website also provides training materials for child nutritionists, teachers and families as well as large serving recipes.

Print headline: School lunch, Oklahoma Department of Education and OSU train nutritionists to better meet meal standards.

Megan Prather

This article was written by an Oklahoma Gazette contributor. To reach an editor, please email jchancellor@okgazette.com with this story's headline in your subject line.

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