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Creating Healthier School Meals

Kid’s palates are notoriously fickle and finicky, but with new regulations governing school menus, administrators are challenged to create healthier menu options that kids will actually eat. That’s why Maryland-based Sodexo, Inc., one of the largest contract foodservice providers in the country, turned to McCormick to help them create new recipes and redesign menus for the 500 school districts they serve.

Lisa Feldman, director of culinary services for Sodexo, knew that flavor had to be a key component of their strategy—school cafeterias have their fair share of picky eaters, so the healthy offerings had to taste good. Feldman looked to McCormick to help tackle the changes she needed to make to school menus.

While our goal was to meed USDA nutrition requirements, we took a flavor first approach. We had a lot of work to do, such as increasing whole grains and vegetables, and meeting targets for sodium and fat. Yet, our focus was on creating contemporary and exciting menus that would truly appeal to kids.

Megan Ford, who oversees the foodservice division at McCormick, helped host a workshop for Feldman and her colleagues at Sodexo.  Over a five-day period in the McCormick test kitchens, the Sodexo culinary team worked with the chefs, foodservice staff and sensory science experts at  McCormick to create new recipes, rewrite existing recipes and build a database of new menus that would comply with USDA regulations. 

Sodexo recently reinforced their commitment to healthier school meals by joining the Partnership for a Healthier America, which was created in conjunction with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to help fight childhood obesity. Considering that Sodexo serves more than 2 million school meals daily, these efforts will likely make a significant impact.

“At Sodexo, we do quite a bit of work with McCormick on recipe ideation,” said Feldman.  “We’ll start with a concept and then we’ll consult with McCormick on trending flavor profiles, especially for kids. We’ll go into a kitchen together and develop recipes.  We’ll take those recipes and then try them out with kids.  That’s how we’ve ended up with so many great new menus for our school lunch program.”

McCormick also helped Sodexo create more meatless entrees, kid-pleasing vegetables and global-themed specialties.   The company introduced a “Street Eats” promotion in school cafeterias that featured Mexican, Asian and Latin inspired offerings that were full of flavor.  McCormick provided the customized spice blends for these ethnic offerings to ensure that they were authentic to the regions, from Carnitas Tacos to Ramen Noodles. 

Sodexo also worked with McCormick to implement “Flavor Stations” in school cafeterias, offering a set of spices and herbs for kids to shake on their vegetables and entrees to boost flavor.  Lemon Pepper, Southwest Seasonings and Mediterranean Spice Blends have been among the most popular with kids.

Feldman said they started with flavor in mind when designing new school menus, and flavor has helped make the Sodexo-McCormick partnership so successful.

“We often underestimate the importance of flavor for kids,” she said “Kids love lots of flavor and we like to expose them to different spices and herbs to expand their palates and help them learn to enjoy new cuisines and flavor profiles.”