It’s All About The Menu Transcript

Moderator, Laura Thompson: Welcome everybody to our webinar today. It’s all about the menu with Meg Chesley and Mary Begalle. We are thrilled you are here today to talk about menus and how it drives the business and how it touches on everything that you do.

So just as far as today’s agenda, a little bit of housekeeping, this webinar is being recorded so if you have to hop off at any point to know that you can get the recording later we’re going to do some introductions and then from there we will have the discussion between Meg and Mary. It’s all about the menu. After that discussion for the last 10 or so minutes, maybe 10 to 15 minutes of this webinar, it’ll be a Q and a, so feel free to submit questions anytime along the way. There should be a button along the bottom of your zoom webinar where you can submit those questions and we will be able to receive them and ask them of Meg and Mary at the end. From there we will wrap up and then we will be good to go. We’re going to make sure this doesn’t go longer than the hour. As much fun as this topic is, and as much as I know Meg and Mary can keep going on this topic. By way of introduction, Meg Chesley is the founder and president here at healthy pro. She spent 15 years as the director of channeling trips and services at a Corona, Norco Unified School District and has been at Health-e Pro now 18 years as a consultant. And as writing the software, she’s also a silver plate recipient and undertook the process to design a new program to simplify the steps in meeting USDA requirements.

Mary has both private industry experience and public sector experience. Having spent seven years at the Minnesota department of education as the state director of food and nutrition service and also 13 years at Schwans, one of the largest national frozen food manufacturers. As we’ve gotten to know Mary the last couple of months, we realized she and Meg used nearly identical phrases and had similar philosophies. So we’re thrilled to have her here with Meg to share some of what she’s learned with her experience over the years.

Mary, we would like to start off asking you the question, what is the primary goal of food service directors and what is your philosophy with the menu around that?

Mary Begalle: Well, hello everyone. Glad to be here with you today. I think the primary goal of the food service director is feeding kids. That’s what the program is all about and making sure that you feed as many kids as possible. And that takes leadership. The food service director is in the position of the buck stops here and they’re really responsible for the school nutrition program’s success and that success a lot of times depends on the goal of the local school board or community. It may be financially driven, it may be more nutrition driven, it may be serving the local community. All of those different goals are impacted by the menu because in food service the menu drives everything.

Laura: Awesome. Thank you. Meg, do you have anything you want to add to that? 

Meg Chesley: I think Mary said it great. I’ll just add to that: straight out of college I went into a school district job and the very first task I was given was writing menus and I loved it from the very beginning because I’m a bit of a foodie. I tried some really crazy combinations together and I remember my director telling me, you can’t put a burrito and French fries together. And I was like, but that’s what I eat! And I was only a few years older than high school kids at that point. It looks different everywhere and I think that’s one of the challenges and the fun of menu planning is what works in one place, doesn’t work in another. And yet lots of great things can work in a lot of places.

It’s become more challenging in recent years trying to make sure we’re compliant with all the things that we do. But it’s really a fun thousand-piece puzzle to try to put together. And if you get the menu right, lots of other things fall into place. It’s a great fun topic to talk about and how can we really figure out how to maximize that participation and keep our costs in line so that we can do it well and reasonably and serve our communities well. And what kid wouldn’t want burritos and French fries? I mean, that sounds good! So when you see it’s all about the menu or that the menu drives your business, what does that mean? What does that entail?

Mary: I’ll jump in here and just say that there isn’t really an aspect of the business that the menu doesn’t touch on. Certainly we’re touching what’s happening with kids and what’s happening in their eating, whether they choose to eat, choose not to eat–everything related to that. We’re touching on costs, we’re touching on operations, we’re having a look at everything from staffing to what kind of equipment do we have. And then what’s the net net at the end? How did it play out at the end? Did the students like it? Are we able to afford to do it again? How did it all play out once it’s over with? Because that’s what we use to then continue working on the menu for the next time around. So there just really isn’t an aspect of the business that it doesn’t touch.

Meg: Yeah, I agree. And do you have enough space? Do you have the equipment needed? Are you going to drive participation and think about your cost. But also the nutritional quality of the meal. Using the menu as a nutrition education tool and really being able to address the concerns of your local community.

Laura: Wonderful. Thank you. So this is kind of a big overall–how does the menu touch on everything? Now we want to break down into, What does that mean from a logistical standpoint or thinking about all the factors involved in this. So we thought we would start with, What if a parent of one of your students comes to you and says, Hey, we should really have a ramen bar in school? Where does that start? Where do you start at that point?

Meg: I love this because being a foodie I’m going to start looking for a ramen bar. Have I been to a ramen bar before? Do I know what that is? And I’m going to start checking resources for innovation and seeing, where is this being done? Who’s doing this? What does it look like? What’s involved in a ramen bar? I’m going to start asking all those kinds of questions and that’s going to get my brain juices flowing no on the what? Because now I’ve got to figure out, okay, what a great idea. What do I do next?

Mary: When you think about it the menu overall really is your most powerful tool to drive participation. Kids want new trends, they want new flavors. They get menu fatigue. And so it’s key to being innovative bringing those trends forward, but then thinking through how do I execute this? When we talk about trying to feed as many kids as possible, looking at your menu mix is important because you don’t want to put all of your most popular items in the same week or if you have a multi-serve menu on the same day, you want to really take a look at how do I blend out my week and my month and my menu cycle so that every day I’m hitting on something that’s going to drive students to the cafeteria.

Meg: I think some of the other things that are always consideration. I’ve worked in a number of central kitchens and I remember a time that we knew how many pans we had to ship things in. So we had to think about, we only have 200 pans of this particular shape. So if this needed to go in this, how many items could I put on the menu that needed that pan? It really gets down to your preparation and serving methods. Am I going to scratch, cook this quick scratch, cook it? What kind of equipment do I have? What are all the things that are going to be impacted not to mention what does my serving line look like and where would I put this? You’re really looking at so many different things before you could ever say yes to the recipe. I’m really having to look at how would it be prepared, how would it be served? And there’s just a lot of details that go around that as you start pondering, what would it look like for that to happen?

Laura: Anything else to add here about the breakdown of this participation image here? Okay. Then we will move on to innovation. When you start looking for, okay, if I’m going to have this ramen bar, how do you create, or how do you innovate in a way that makes it engaging or interesting to the student?

Meg: I think one of the things that I’ve always looked for when I’m looking for great ideas, I’m looking for how to implement something. I’ve always looked into some nontraditional places. For example, I like looking to see what colleges and universities do because their kids are two, three, four years out of the high school environment. And they’re starting to flex their taste buds a little bit more and what’s going on up at that college and university level. Even looking on Pinterest and saying, What does it look like? So their social media, whether it’s a Facebook group where you’re hearing about recipe ideas from people or what does it look like to have that happen inside my district? So looking for a lot of creative resources to be able to really get down to, What does it look like in my school district?

Mary: And I think it’s important to realize that there’s a lot of flexibilities there and trying to be innovative you don’t have to do it exactly like somebody else does. You can, you can modify it to pitch your program. You know, the great thing about social media we’re seeing so many schools now posting innovative things that they’re doing on social media. We’re seeing lots of people talking about doing outdoor barbecues or having really unique entrees like a prime rib sandwich. How could I ever do that? How could I afford to do that? And really what you have to look at is, first of all, what’s the capability of your staff? What’s the skill level? Can you do scratch cooking? Can you modify that recipe and do a speed scratch where you’re not doing everything from scratch but you’re finishing it off and you’re using some convenience products.

If you have to use heat and serve or that’s your preferred method, what things can you do to add on that would be executable to say doing a ramen bar or doing a barbecue or doing a customizable sandwich station. So that all comes into it. But the important thing is that it’s not one size fits all and you can find a way within your district to execute against an idea that maybe is modified to fit your situation.

Meg: I agree with you, Mary. And I think one of the things that’s really important, because you can see so many people executing via social media and things is find out what they do. A lot of times they’re testing in a smaller environment, so when we say, Hey, I want to do a ramen bar, I might not want to roll that out district-wide but find a place to be able to try it first to see what’s going to be the acceptance there? Are the products that I’ve chosen acceptable? And refine it in a small environment before moving it out to the whole district.

Mary: And I think the other thing too is you can take an idea and you don’t necessarily have to make it 100% in every school. A good example of that would be lots of schools are going towards farm-to-school. They want to use local, fresh ingredients. But they can’t procure enough local ingredients or local foods to serve in their school district because maybe the scope of their district is just so much bigger. But they buy local, they advertise on the menu that they’re serving local ingredients. And then they’re sharing the local ingredients with different schools at different times. So that maybe not 100% of the time is my lunch coming from locally sourced foods. But the district’s making an effort to do that and I think that can help so much. With the perception, the PR of the meal program and your menu, communicates that to your community.

Laura: Wonderful. All right, so you’ve started with the innovation and the creativity. Then, where do you go from there to starting to build out the recipe or some of the details of the ingredients that are going to be necessary for this.

Meg: No, there’s a lot of districts have chefs but many do not. And I think really there’s a lot of other resources, many resources, whether you’re getting recipes from others or whether you’re doing it in your own tasks. I think manufacturers are a huge resource to us. One of the earlier screenshots, Laura, that you showed was actually from Tyson because somebody wants me to do it. They contacted Tyson and said, do you have products and things and how can you help us put this together? Some of the manufacturers are great resource for recipes and other things. There’s a lot of great resources out there, but getting it to a standardized recipe with those standardized ingredients is of course going to be crucial to compliance as well. So really taking the time to do that. And even if you do get a recipe from somebody else, making sure you go through those tests and go through those things to make sure that your yields are correct and all those things because compliance is going to be a big piece of this as well.

Mary: And I think beyond the recipes the manufacturers do a good job of providing menu applications for their products. So if you’re buying a further-processed product your manufacturer will have ideas for you on how can I customize this product, how can I take a heat-and-serve product but maybe add some additional ingredients or garnishes or whatever to it to really enhance my menu.

Meg: I agree with you Mary. There’s such a wealth of resources and so many of them even have chefs on their teams that we could tap into to be able to get some of those great applications. As well as looking at, Hey, if I bring a product in, are there multiple ways that I can use it? So it’s not solely used in this menu item, but there are other ways that I can use that product perhaps for other items. So that as we get into talking a little bit about the food storage and some of those things, those all play in to that whole thing as we get going. Are there things you already have? Are there things if you bring them in, you can use them in multiple ways? And I think that the manufacturer is just a great resource there.

Laura: So once you’ve started working with the recipe, how do you balance understanding the menu mix or the popularity of other items and how you fit that into what you currently have planned?

Mary: I think to maximize your participation you really need to look at every day and do I have a menu that is going to attract students to the cafeteria? And looking at, in some innovations, people are starting to move towards more expensive items, maybe higher quality cuts of meat, that type of thing. And being cognizant of your costs and blending your menu mix so that you try to minimize your costs or control your costs as much as possible. And then making sure that there’s something that some presents there every day that will attract the kids for the cafeteria.

It might be a whole-grain dessert selection that they could make or something with food in it or a more exotic fresh fruit that kids aren’t used to, but something that will draw them in. But balancing it out so that you’re balancing your costs at the same time that you’re balancing your participation across the entire week.

Meg: I think Mary, to your point, that it’s so crucial to really be looking for what’s thing that’s going to drive them to come in that when that student looks at that menu and decides, Hey mom, I want to eat today. What is it that they’re looking at that they’re going to say, Ooh, I love this. And really having that, “I love this” item that’s on the menu every day. So whatever tools you have to be able to identify that, that combination. Many of the cafeteria managers that I’ve worked with in the past were like, How do you figure that out? But they know the things that the kids really like. So tapping into those internal resources as well . . . how do we figure this out? Again, it’s that big thousand-piece puzzle that we’re trying to do. Cause you’re going to balance popularity. And then the next thing you’re going to balance is how do I make sure I get compliance out of this? Because we all know that if we put only cheese products on everyday, all week, you’ll never hit the sodium target. So really looking for that great balance that’s going to get you both the participation as well as the compliance and making sure that we can get to both.

Mary: Meg, you mentioned it earlier that, when you first started, you could put burritos and French fries on. So looking even at a side like French fries, the regulations are being a little bit loosened up now with potentially the vegetables, not having to worry so much about starchy vegetables and the vegetable mix, having that a little bit less restrictive. It’s a great example of driving participation, putting that on with the less expensive entree or maybe a little bit less popular on trade and not serving those French fries with an entree that’s going to drive foot traffic into your cafeteria.

Meg: I love this. Mary and I could write menus all day long because this is just really such fun part of trying to get in the students’ brains and trying to figure out what’s caused them to say a yes to the menu and say, I want to eat there today.

And one of the things that I learned early on when I was a school food service director was to just go and hang out in the cafeteria and just watch the kids, watch their behavior and you learn so much that way. I always felt that I learned better just observing the kids than I did with having a student advisory council because you didn’t have the kids that were actually participating in the program, trying to give you advice on what to do. But if you observe your kids in the cafeteria, that’s a great resource.

Laura: We’ve talked about compliance a little bit there and menu popularity in menu mix before that. What about the logistics of operations? When you’re thinking through a ramen bar, where does that path go through operations?

Mary: I’ll jump in here. I think starting out with facilities, if I’m adding new menu items, that increases the number of SKU I’m bringing in the back door. Do I have the space to store all of that? Does it need refrigeration? Do I need freezer space? Do I have the right equipment for preparing it? So just kind of thinking through the logistics of it and being careful not to get into SKU proliferation that can get out of control and drive your food costs up. And then down to the serving line, can I execute a ramen bar in my serving area and what would I need to do that? Or is there a modified way that I can do that that still creates a special experience for the student.

Meg: Or even something that’s rotating in. If you already had a bar of some kind in a school, but you just wanted to rotate through that menu to try some different things. There’s so many things that could be done. So if you’re space limited or equipment limited, before you go out and buy anything, you’re going to want to look at, where can I do this and what can I use that’s existing to at least give it a try. And see what happened is that I’m looking at the staff and saying, what do I already have? What’s it gonna take to do a ramen bar? How many people does it take to actually serve that I’ve got a hot liquid, I’ve got vegetables and things that are going to go on top and I’ve got them having to make a selection of a protein or something like that.

So what’s it going to take to do that? And what are those skills that might determine even do we have the skills and the ability to do scratch? Do our people know how to do that? So really looking at that and examining what do you all have already that you can use? Because for the most part, we have lots of talented people already working for us. How do we maximize use of that? And then of course, when you’re looking at staff, looking at meals per labor hour and saying, where do I need to keep that and what kind of labor hours do I have existing? Will it take more or less than that to do that? So being really familiar those numbers and knowing how that will factor in with our KPIs as we get to that in a little bit. But these are all key pieces of figuring, what’s it going to take to actually serve that? Because what happens, am I going to serve it to the whole school? Will it be the only thing that day or are 800 kids going to show up for that ramen bar? It’s possible. So if that’s going to happen, what do I really need to do now? Do I need multiple serving stations? How’s that going to really look in practice if this new thing was really a huge hit.

Mary: I think a good strategy is to pilot your new ideas in one or a handful of schools before going full bore with the whole district. That’ll help you to determine what are your facility needs? It’ll help you to determine, do I have the skillset necessary to to execute this? And from there you can decide do I need to do more training to get my staff up to speed so that they do have the skills to do it or can I modify my plan so that there’s less skill needed, but I can still present a modified version of an innovative idea.

Meg: I’ve seen some districts lately and I’ve just loved this. They’ve called it having a menu takeover, or a chef takeover at a particular school and that was a school they were going to try something new at and they just came in and the regular existing menu wasn’t served and they took over with whatever this new thing was. To be able to try it, to get as much feedback as possible and really see how popular is this and how’s it gonna land? So such a fun idea to really be able to implement well and really get some great feedback from kids. 

Laura: We’ve gotten a couple of questions come through that I think might fit well here, especially Mary as you were talking about like a pilot program. So one of the questions was like, what type of bowl are you serving for the students that we can access from our paper companies? And another question was like, how are you staying under the calorie and sodium requirements? So if you’re doing a pilot program, how can you sort of work out some of these logistics that these questions are asking?

Mary: Well, as far as any kind of supplies that go with the meal, you can experiment with different types of sizes of bowls or that type of thing. And it’s important to do your homework up front as far as nutrition. And compliance with regulations. But if you’re doing a pilot program in one school, it’s not really big picture upsetting the apple cart of what your overall menu compliance is and doing some of that type of experimenting, there’s room in there. You wouldn’t necessarily make it a regular part of your main menu offerings for the entire district, but certainly you have the flexibility to do that on a smaller scale and then take learnings from that and then ramp it up to be compliant.

Laura: Awesome. Thank you. 

Meg: I think just to add to the compliance question, everything with calories and sodium and all those things related to compliance, it’s a big math game. What the nutrients and the things are in an individual recipe is much less important than what they are as a whole over the week. So you’re really just looking for that balance as you’re planning that menu versus looking at, wow, I suppose if you had 4,000 milligrams of sodium in that recipe, you’d have a problem. But generally speaking with the products that we’re using and the things that are common in our districts and the flexibility we have in putting that recipe together, most things will fit into a balanced mix. I’m a trained and strong believer in my past education of balance and moderation. So it’s really figuring out how do you get to that balance even in the menu planning process to make sure that you can do some of all of it. I might not be able to do a ramen bar every single day. There’s a lot of things I probably shouldn’t be doing every single day. But it all depends on what that math looks like in that menu mix.

Mary: I have to agree with you, Meg. My experience as a state director and also working for a manufacturer, is sometimes as a director we want to hit the easy button and hitting the easy button is saying, if there’s a nutrition standard that’s averaged over a week, say what percentage of calories from fat or we want every single menu item on that menu to hit against those standards that are written to be averaged over a week. But gosh, I have to average that over a week? That’s just easier to tell my manufacturer or to make sure that my recipe hits exactly on that metric. And that’s kind of doing a disservice to your program because you’re limiting yourself on what you can offer. You’re limiting yourself on cost concerns, on a whole variety of things.

Laura: Thank you for the questions. And please keep any questions coming through. We will start answering them. I think it a little bit, maybe 10 more minutes or so, and we’ll be able to start answering those. But okay. So we’ve talked about staffing. What about how the menu affects marketing?

Meg: I think there’s so much here. There’s so many different ways to market now, but I think one of the requirements is making sure that there’s a appropriate signage at your service line, identifying what’s being served at that line. So that’s going to be one of the other areas that the menu’s going to touch. So regardless of whether you have a sign that’s handwritten or a sign that’s on a digital signboard or even out on an electronic menu that’s available through a mobile app, any of those kinds of things are always that you can get the message out and be able to hit those responsibilities for making sure that we’re advertising it well and we’re getting the signage up that is appropriate for doing that. There’s just so many different ways that you can reach out to parents, reach out to students both electronically and through other means, surveys. There’s all kinds of tools that could be used to do that.

Mary: Yeah, I agree. And I think you know, a lot of times when we think about marketing we don’t think as much about the parents or the community as we do the students. But how you communicate your menu and how you communicate about your program really goes beyond marketing but enters the realm of public relations and your menu can be such a good way of improving your public relations and sending messages to the community that what we do with healthy, what we do is innovative, what we do is sustainable, what we do supports the local community’s values.

Laura: So I think the marketing is the fun stuff. Obviously I’m a little bit biased, but going from marketing then you obviously have to start thinking about costs, food costs, labor costs, waste, meals per labor hour. How is that driven by the menu as well?

Mary: Well, I feel like I was classically trained in food service and in college and Meg mentioned it earlier: nutrition is all about balance, variety and moderation. But food service 101 is that the menu dictates your food costs, it dictates your labor costs. Typically when you look at KPIs in school nutrition, if you have high food costs then you’re probably buying more ready-to-heat-and-serve or ready-to-serve foods. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But if that’s the model you choose because of your facilities or your customer base, then your labor costs should be lower. If your labor costs are high, that could mean you’re doing more scratch cooking, then your food costs should be lower. Being cognizant of that and when you plan your menus, plan the balance between what are my food costs going to be relative to my labor costs? And if that’s out of whack, if you have both high school costs and high labor costs, then you need to go back and look at your menu, look at how you’re planning things to start to control some of those costs.

Meg: And I think just to kind of tag on to that, you really can’t forget about waste either because you can overproduce and find out that, wow that’s dramatically impacting my food costs. So tracking those kinds of things, both from the way things are prepared and served. And examining that waste and saying, what can we do about this and how do we make sure that we’re forecasting . . . forecasting is another area that seems to be mysterious, but it’s really all numbers driven. So to me, it’s one of the greatest reasons for doing digital production records. Sorry, shameless plug. But digital production records then feed you all of this information afterwards. What was prepared, what was served, what was wasted, so that you have ways to track it and be able to look how to work smarter the next time.

Or even tracking what was the cost as I planned the menu? How did it look when I planned it versus when it was prepared because different numbers might’ve happened out at the school site, which might’ve shifted some of that. So you’re really looking at trendlines and those pieces, but it goes back to that recipe in the very beginning that you had to have the cost for the recipe to begin to know what it’s supposed to cost you to produce it, what it actually did cost you produce it and what it cost for the waste to go down the drain.

Mary: Yeah, that’s so critical. And I think that’s a piece that’s missed a lot of times is we do a good job of pre-costing our menus, but not at post-costing our menu. And added on to, even looking at your inventory turns, are you buying much more food than you need? And are you not cycling it through your warehouse or your store room quickly enough? And all of that type of activity drives down your costs. When you’re tracking inventory terms and cashflow.

Meg: Again, there’s  nothing that this doesn’t touch. It doesn’t really matter what costs we’re talking about. Whatever that menu is, is gonna hit on that from preparation, tp service to all of the pieces. So it is just so, so crucial to have your arms around this and have good tools to be able to help you make those ready assessments so that after you have tried something, you can pretty well predict, what’s gonna happen to it from here. 

Laura: Meg, as you’re talking about having good tools, I think that’s a perfect segue into this next section of KPIs and understanding what the numbers mean and how that can help inform the decisions you make in the future. Can you talk a little bit about that? 

Meg: And the KPIs are so interesting because all they really are is a bunch of measurement tools, but they’re kind of standard indicators for our industry that say this is how you’re doing against a standard measurement.

I did a training session a couple of years ago at a conference and I asked the room full of people how many people knew from last week’s menu, their KPIs and only one person in the room said she calculates them every single week. I was pretty stunned because I asked her how she calculates them and she does it all by hand. And I was like, Whoa, they are a lot of work! But they’re huge because this is where you get to, okay, now I’ve measured it and I know what it costs us to produce and I know what my daily participation is and I know what my meals per labor hours, and my meal equivalents are, now I can plan for the next cycle, and I know how to predict that, and I know how to predict that projected into the future, what this is going to look like. So, getting that, this is the end of the feedback loop, but then it just starts that loop all over again to say, okay, what do we do next month? How do we assess and how do we then make wise decisions based upon that feedback that we’re getting? So figuring out how do I get these numbers and have my arms around them and be able to know how are they changing from day to day and week to week so that I can continue that assessment and continue making sure that the program is going to run in the most efficient way possible.

Mary: I couldn’t agree more with that. And having real-time data and real-time information is so critical to running a financially solvent program. And unfortunately there still are schools out there that they don’t know they’ve lost money until the end of the year when the books are closed. And then it’s too late. Then you find yourself in a crisis situation. KPI’s can be as simple as meals per labor hour, daily participation rates, pre-costing of food, all those kind of basic things to doing profit-and-loss statements by building level. I’ll give a picture. The School Nutrition magazine, the most recent issue, did an entire issue on technology and I encourage people to take a look at that because, really, when you think about where we are as a society with technology, school nutrition is kind of running behind in that arena and there is so much out there and so much innovation out there and such new capabilities for getting real-time information so that you can make sound business decisions for your program.

Laura: All right, well, thank you so much. We have been getting some questions in. If you have any others, please submit them through the question and answer portion of the Zoom Webinar. We’ve had a couple here that are asking about what is it, is there a standard for meals per labor hour? Is there a specific goal maybe for elementary or secondary? Can you speak to meals per labor hour a little bit? 

Meg: I just love that question. I’m going to say, Mary, do you want to answer that? [laughing]

Mary: I’d be happy to actually. The Institute of Child Nutrition has done some benchmarking in that area and they have recommendations out there for meals per labor hour based on, the type of operation that you have. Are you more heat-and-serve, are you more scratch cooking, that type of thing. But I think it’s important for you to just start tracking that and then setting goals for improving it. I think you can look at some of that benchmark information, but there’s a lot of variables that go into meals per labor hour and there are a lot of things that can cause it to change. And if you start tracking it at the school level, you’ll find that you might have schools that are similar but that have a different meals per labor hour.

And that might have to do with the physical facility. It might have to do with the way that the principal plans the length of meal service that you have. There’s all kinds of things that can come into it. I think the key message is that you start tracking. The SNA in their new training cites they do have financial management for managers. And it helps them to understand how to calculate some of these kinds of basic things that you need to know. I would encourage people to start tracking it but then understand that one size does not fit all. So, talk to your peers, get ideas from maybe districts that are similar to yours as how are they doing on meals per labor hour? And then look at some of the benchmark information and try to make progress towards those benchmarks.

Meg: I couldn’t have said it any better, Mary, because my first thought at the question was one size doesn’t fit all and I totally agree. Just start tracking, look at those benchmarks and I think then you start getting that kind of data that you need to be able to figure it out for your district. 

Laura: All right. We’ve had a couple more questions coming through. What do you feel is the optimal menu cycle?

Meg: I don’t know that there is really an optimal menu cycle. I’ve seen everything from one week to eight or 10 weeks. And I don’t know that it’s optimal. I think it really just depends on, again, there’s so many variables in what you might do. You want to be able to use up your storage and a reasonable amount of time. So a lot depends on how often are you using that item. You don’t want things to be sitting there for eight or 10 weeks that don’t show up on a menu. It just so totally depends on what that menu looks like. And what really your facilities and all these other things that we’ve talked about today look like. It’s one of those trial-and-error things, pick a number and start. My personal favorite is five weeks. It takes a long time before that four-week month looks the same again. So, but that’s just a personal thing and not really anything that I could say, Hey, this will work for you.

Mary: Yeah, I agree. I think it, you know, it really depends on the school district. I think another strategy that you can use because what you don’t want to create is menu fatigue. And to Meg’s point a five-week cycle helps with that because the month doesn’t look exactly the same as the previous month. Most schools, when they’re writing menus think about it being cyclical to the school year. So menus are created for an entire cycle menu for the school year. One strategy you might try is to introduce new menu cycles in January so that that menu runs through May or June. The students are off for the summer. They come back in September, they don’t remember a menu cycle from the previous year. And then after the holiday break, to come back in January, it could be a totally new menu. A little bit more work in doing your procurement because the procurement is typically fashioned after school fiscal year, which is July 1 through June 30th. But I’ve seen some districts do that and they’ve had a lot of success with kicking off new menu cycles in January.

Laura: Awesome. All right. We had another question come through. Students are fans of select menu items. You mentioned to focus on the foods they like, which we do. What are your thoughts on introducing foods to increase variety and exposure to those foods that they might not otherwise see? 

Meg: I think the introduction of new foods as a best practice is really a wise thing to do. You have to understand that it might not be the most popular item, but you do have developing taste palettes in kids and you really don’t know what’s going to resonate with them and what they’re going to really like. You just may find that it takes a while to be able to introduce something that’s just so foreign that they never see it at home or any of those kinds of things. There’s always room for it.

And it should always be encouraged and then measure it. Try it a couple times. I had a standard practice that was, try something three times before you decide whether it’s going to stay on the menu. The first time it’s like, Ooh, what’s that? The second time it was like, Hmm, maybe I’ll take that. And the third time was, I liked it and I’m going to have it again. You don’t really get great feedback until you’ve put it out there a couple times.

Mary: Yeah, I agree. Our mission is feeding kids, but also feeding kids nutritious foods. So adding new menu items, trying new things, is critical to that. Again, balane, variety, and moderation. And even if you introduce an item that’s not popular with every student, think about the diversity that we have in our school systems today and the importance of appealing to that diverse population. So maybe adding an item that maybe not all students would like, but maybe an ethnic group of students or religious group of students would gravitate towards. That’s a success even if it’s not driving overall participation, if it’s driving participation within a subset of students, I think that’s an important thing to do.

Meg: I think we don’t want to forget either, that it needs to be both nutritious and delicious. That we’ve got some uphill battles to climb; whole grains are seen as having texture issues and, as you’re lowering the sodium, it’s not going to taste as good. Well, there’s a lot of ways to make things taste good. And so really I’m focusing in on doing both and making sure that we’re hitting both of those. It’s just such a key to success.

Laura: Awesome. All right, well I would like to wrap up with one last question for each of you. Why do you love this industry and why do you love this work? Mary, do you go first?

Mary: Well, thank you. I have to say I love this industry. I love school nutrition because I love the people who work in school nutrition. They are people who love to serve others and they’re people who love to serve. Our most important citizens are our children. And the years that I’ve spent working over 30 years in school nutrition, I’ve always felt that our workers are our greatest asset and many are just the salt of the earth. They come into work, just they’re wonderful people and that’s what’s kept me in this business as I’ve been here.

Laura: That’s wonderful. Thank you. And Meg, what about you? Same question. 

Meg: It is the people. There’s no other way to get around that because that’s the bottom line is that without the people, none of this means anything. But I think really specifically I love the fact that we have the opportunity to shape a generation. And in my last role as a food service director, we would talk about this all the time, that we wanted the next generation of kids to tell their children that their experience in schools and in school food service was different than what their parents had. So back then I would hear parents who go, Oh, I hated eating in the cafeteria. I wanted to get to the point our students would say, I had amazing things in our school cafeteria and when they’re talking to their kids that they’re speaking a different story and saying, and this is why I want you to eat at school.

So having been, Mary and I in the industry for a long time, we’ve actually had that opportunity to impact several generations. And you know what, that’s what gets me up in the morning. And even though I don’t get to directly impact in the same way, I know when I see our customers working on their menus and asking us questions and doing those kinds of things that we’re involved in that great work. Even though we’re not on the front lines anymore. So I love supporting you, love supporting food service directors and the work that they do because you are doing the most critical thing of shaping that generation of kids. And that’s it for me.

Laura: Meg, Mary, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate you sharing your insights, your experience, your heart. So thank you so much and thank you for joining us with this webinar today. We appreciate you taking the time. We know that you have a million things that you’re working on and trying to take care of, so we thank you for coming. And again, this recording will be available, so we will make that available. And if you have any questions, please let us know. Thank you again, and we will talk to you soon.