It’s back to school time, and we’ve got to start packing lunches again. Chef Teri Esensten, founder and head chef at NEST, Nutritional Excellence for Students and Teachers, feeds hundreds of students every day and is a school lunch expert. We asked her to share what she’s learned about creating healthy lunches that kids will enjoy and eat!
NEST: Nutritional Excellence for Teachers and Students is delicious and nutritious food for students and school staff. Old favorites combined with new flavors and textures to make lunchtime fun and exciting. Entree, vegetable, fruit, and a small treat served by educators to every school every day. We offer seconds on everything but the treat! Every week there will be a combination of old favorites and new eating experiences!! All sauces and condiments are house made. The cheese and cream sauces start with a roux. The tomato/vegetable sauce contains spinach, tomato, onion, celery, carrot, and garlic. The flour is Healthy Choice (½ whole wheat & ½ white). All nut free. Menu subject to change due to product availability. No processed foods. VEGETARIAN OPTIONS SERVED DAILY.
Doesn’t this sound fantastic?! I wish my children went to a school with the NEST lunch program. Since they don’t, I asked chef and founder, Teri Esensten, to share the secrets and tips she’s learned from preparing lunch for hundreds of students every day for the last five years.
How did NEST start?
I’m now going into the fifth year of operating NEST. Five years ago, I had just closed a restaurant and was still operating a catering business. I was hired to overhaul the food program at a large preschool, and I realized the program translated well to other schools. I then approached my daughter’s school, which had a kitchen but no lunch program. We deliberated if I should be hired as an employee of the school or as a contractor. We decided on contractor, and this has allowed me to expand the program to eight schools now.
How does NEST operate?
All the lunches are prepared in two kitchens and then taken to each school with a NEST employee who sets up and serves the lunch and interacts with the students and teachers during lunch. Each school uses compostable plates and flatware. The lunch server provides a serving of entrée, side vegetable, fresh fruit, and treat (always incorporating vegetables and fruit, things like zucchini bread with chocolate chips). The students can always have more of anything (except for only one treat). Having a NEST lunch server at each school allows us to build a relationship with the students, which enhances their education about food and nutrition, and gives us good insight into their tastes and interests.
What makes a school lunch program successful?
- Get in a win right away with delicious food and engaging people. Having lunch staff on-site is more successful than a drop-off (lunch) program.
- Flexible portion size. Teach moderation. Help children listen to their bodies by giving them control over portion size. Their appetites change based on their growth and energy output. Some days they want multiple portions of entrée or sides. We offer an abundance of nutritious food and limited amounts of sweets.
- Presentation. What does the meal look like? We all eat with our eyes first. The visual appeal of a meal is very important. We focus on making the food look as delicious as it tastes. It’s especially important for children, since they are still being introduced to new foods and we want them to try a broad range.
- Don’t YUCK my YUM. We teach the students that different people have different tastes. They may not like a food that the person sitting next to them loves. We ask them to keep their complaints to themselves so that they don’t turn off neighbors to a food they may like once they give it a chance.
- Lots of on-the-side items. Students love to individualize their meals by adding toppings and condiments (especially the older kids). We design lunches with a lot of parts (chopped, sliced, shredded vegetables, shredded cheese, sauces, condiments, spices, herbs, chips, crackers) so that students can add and assemble as they wish.
What lunches bombed?
- Indian Butter Chicken. The color of the sauce was too pink, and since we eat with our eyes first, the students didn’t even want to try it. Once they tried it, they liked the taste, but they had a hard time getting past the color. It didn’t look appetizing.
- Stir fry with rice is our least favorite dish– so many parents tell me that their kids love stir fry, but it is the least popular entrée that we make. I think that kids are willing to try one vegetable or one protein, but a big mix of them is just too overwhelming. Now we stick with one vegetable and one protein (like beef with broccoli) when we make stir fry.
How can parents / home cooks make good lunches for their children if they don’t go to a school with a good hot-lunch program like NEST?
- Communicate more with your children about food. Talk about what constitutes a healthy lunch, nutritious foods that give them energy for their day. Teach them about protein and different kinds of produce. Broaden their eating patterns by introducing them to new kinds of foods.
- Don’t use junk food or sometimes foods as “treats.” Teach children that sweets and sometimes foods can be consumed in moderation. Don’t get into a power struggle with kids over the treat. When we serve lunch, they can eat anything on their plate in any order. Your stomach doesn’t know what order you eat your food in. By June, half of the kids don’t even eat the treat at lunch because they’ve seen it and it’s not a big deal anymore.
- Hide a lot of vegetables in food. Soups, casseroles, smoothies, pasta sauce can all be loaded with vegetables and give the kids all the benefits without them even knowing it is in there.
- Pack a deconstructed lunch. Kids love to put their own lunch together, so when packing their lunch, keep the parts separate so they can construct it at school. Example: Bagel Sandwich Day: whole wheat bagel, cream cheese, turkey breast, sliced cucumber.
- Make the food more fun. Use a vegetable peeler to cut a cucumber or carrot into long ribbons. Use a cookie cutter to cut out bread or cheese or fruit slices.
- Packaging matters. We eat with our eyes first. Use colorful packaging. Wrap burritos in foil (the kids are more likely to eat it if it is in foil – it looks like it came from a restaurant).
What if you have picky eaters?
Talk to them. Let them know that you want them to be successful in the next part of their day. Their food is their energy and fuel. Entice them by putting healthy fillings in puff pastry. Eat in little courses. Give them healthy snacks all day long. Draw pictures on their banana peels.
What if a parent is a reticent cook?
Look at food and cooking magazines for inspiration and recipes. Read through it. Read blogs like Table365. Look at what looks enticing to you and try it. You can’t make a mistake unless you burn it. Feel free to experiment. Make a hash. The more you try, the easier it will get.
Where do you get your inspiration?
- From the kids – we ask for ideas and suggestions. One of the parents remarked on how much their children like Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup), so I created a recipe with flavors that appeal to children, and it has become one of our most popular lunches. (Teri’s Pho Recipe below.)
- Read a lot of magazines – I read almost all of the food and cooking magazines and look at the vegetarian ones for new ideas featuring vegetables. Sometimes I check out the cooking shows on TV.
Final thoughts and wisdom from an experienced parent, professional chef, and school lunch expert:
Don’t be afraid of your children and food. Have no fear. Your children are great. They’re more open than you probably give them credit for. Let them try foods and listen. Don’t guess ahead of time that they won’t like it. We have one rule in our house: you have to taste everything and make your own decision.
Family Friendly PHO Recipe from Teri Esensten, Chef and Founder, NEST: Nutritional Excellence for Students and Teachers
- Vegetable stock
- Rice noodles
- Fresh herbs like basil, mint, cilantro
- Shredded carrots
- Baked tofu and/or mini meatballs
- Bean sprouts
- Any kind of vegetable your kids like (zucchini, corn, roasted peppers, edamame, peas)
- Dried seaweed
- Green onion and/or garlic chives
- Soy sauce, Hoisin, Sriacha
1. Cook rice noodles until soft (follow directions on package) about 5 minutes. 2. Heat vegetable stock until at light boil. 3. Cut up vegetables and tofu into small pieces. 4. Place individual servings of noodles into large soup bowls and ladle vegetable stock over the noodles. 5. Let the family garnish with the herbs, carrots, tofu, bean sprouts, vegetables, seaweed, and chives. Add sauces (soy, Hoisin, and Sriacha) to taste. This is a great way to use any leftover veggies or meat. The noodles can be cooked the day before and kept in the refrigerator. Get creative and have fun!
Thanks very much Teri for this wonderful lunch inspiration! Happy start of the school year.