Foodservice programs at K–12 schools are undergoing substantial changes, largely due to government regulations. Strict nutrition standards are putting foodservice directors in the difficult position of having to implement federal mandates while still providing quality tasting food and beverages to a varied demographic of students. Despite all of these challenges, foodservice directors can still find ways to meet government requirements at breakfast and connect to their students in a fun, educational and impactful way.
Nutrition Standards for School Meals
There are specific regulations that K–12 schools must meet each day. In addition to satisfying these tough standards, there is also a need to offer meal options that are appealing to students and that parents will approve.
Federal nutrition standards for K–12 school meals are as follows:
Every school breakfast must offer students a full cup of fruits or vegetables, and students are required to take at least one half-cup serving of fruits or vegetables with every school breakfast
The minimum daily grain quantity of 1 ounce must be met and all grains must be whole grain-rich. Schools may substitute a meat/meat alternate for grains after the minimum daily grains requirement is met, but a daily meat/meat alternate is not required at breakfast
Schools must gradually reduce sodium levels in school meals, with sodium levels required to be under 500 milligrams for K–12 school breakfasts by July 1, 2022
Minimum and maximum calorie limits for school breakfasts are as follows:
K–5 ages: 350–500 calories
6–8 ages: 400–550 calories
9–12 ages: 450–600 calories
Meals cannot contain added trans-fat and no more than 10% of calories can come from saturated fat
Every school meal offers one cup of fat-free or 1% milk, and flavored milk must be fat-free
Meeting these requirements, staying within budget and appealing to students doesn’t have to be an impossible feat. Things to consider include: household brands can have high student appeal and commodity peanut butter can be used for breakfast items, thus lowering the cost of serving an unrequired protein at breakfast.
When conducting menu planning, foodservice directors should consider the following breakfast items as possible components to a well-balanced meal:
Grab-and-go fruit pouches, fruit cups, dried fruit or seasonal fresh fruit
Individually wrapped Smucker’s whole grain Snack’n Waffles
A peanut butter and banana breakfast wrap with a whole-grain tortilla
Whole-grain pancakes topped with sugar-free syrup or peanut butter
Whole-wheat bagel topped with fruit spread, low-fat cream cheese or peanut butter
To assist in menu planning and better understand kids’ breakfast preferences at their schools, data was collected from parents with a child enrolled as a K–12 student within the past three years. When asked to pick menu attributes important to school breakfasts, taste proved to be table stakes, and freshness is the most important. Quality of ingredients and preparations is top of mind for parents when thinking about what their children consume, but they also want their kids to enjoy what they eat and drink.
Furthermore, the same respondents selected the types of breakfast food and beverage they prefer to be served at schools. It is not surprising that fruit and fruit-based foods and drinks rank high in preferences because these items are naturally sweetened and packed with nutrients.
Familiarity is also an important attribute for parents when thinking of school breakfast meals, as seen with many common breakfast items like cereal, eggs and orange juice leading the lists. Parents know that their children, particularly those younger in age, are more apt to eat something they know and like rather than try a completely new type of food or beverage. This can also come in the form of brands they know from home and are familiar with. For example, students are familiar with the Smucker’s brand, and it is also a brand that their parents know and trust.
Expanding Breakfast Availability
K–12 schools are finding ways to offer more children better-for-you breakfasts. This is being accomplished through complimentary breakfast programs. The benefits of these programs are as follows:
Guarantees a nutritious start to the day for all students, regardless of income level
Affords time-crunched families a few extra minutes in the morning
Provides students with more energy and focus in the classroom, leading to improved grades
Educates kids on the importance of eating a nutritious breakfast in hopes that they carry these habits throughout the rest of their lives
Many breakfast programs are also allowing kids to eat in the classroom, either by grabbing food from the cafeteria first or bringing a food and beverage cart into the teaching space. This initiative lets students eat with their classmates without disrupting the learning process.
Another growing development is for school districts to extend their breakfast programs throughout the summer to ensure low-income kids can still eat properly when school is out of session. During summer months, children can visit designated service venues to receive a complete and balanced breakfast that is consumed onsite.
Farm-to-school programs at K–12 schools are helping connect students to their community. These programs vary in types of local sourcing, but all teach students about the importance of ingredient quality. Many schools strive to feature a selection of locally sourced ingredients each day in cafeteria meals, particularly meats and produce, although the defined “local” radius varies by district.
Onsite school gardens are part of an emerging hyperlocal movement that encourages sourcing from as close as the schools’ backyard. Schools that source their own vegetables and herbs onsite are involving students in the gardening process, teaching them about how to select crops and produce their own food. In the end, students get to taste the foods they help grow in school meals and feel proud to contribute to feeding their peers.
The blurring dayparts trend is now moving more into education. These mashup meals keep things interesting, but familiar at the same time by spotlighting breakfast dishes that have lunch and dinner influences. Think breakfast pizzas and flatbreads, breakfast burritos and pancake tacos filled with eggs and bacon or sausage.
Fun, Cool and Craveable
Regardless of healthfulness, students want food that tastes good and looks good. Younger children may gravitate more toward fun foods with playful names, shapes, sizes and presentations. This could include mini pancakes and French toast sticks served with syrup dip.
Older students may be drawn toward hip and craveable items with bolder and more novel flavors. On-trend beverages such as hot and iced specialty coffees, cold-press juices and smoothies with natural sweeteners are excellent ways to appeal to this age demographic.
Older Gen Zers are showing an interest in more ethnic options, including during breakfast occasions. Flavors, ingredients and preparations from Asia and Mexico are particularly appealing to this consumer set. Putting an ethnic spin on a breakfast dish can be as easy as changing the presentation from an egg scramble or omelet to a breakfast taco, burrito or bao, or complementing egg dishes with condiments like salsa.
3 Areas of Opportunity for K-12 Breakfast
Teaching With Breakfast
K–12 schools have an opportunity to make their foodservice programs a hands-on educational tool for students. Onsite gardens, nutritional education and culinary cooking classes can help students understand how the breakfasts they eat are sourced and prepared. Since the knowledge and skills provided by these programs can influence Gen Z’s consumption habits, schools can play a vital role today in shaping their students’ future eating habits for the better.
Prioritizing Flavor and Quality
Harmoniously balancing flavor and quality in school breakfasts is essential for pleasing both students and parents. While students want the foods and beverages they consume to be flavorful and craveable, parents also place high importance on those items having nutritional benefits, such as protein to satiate hunger throughout the morning. For example, peanut butter, whether used as a dip for fruits and veggies or in a PB&J sandwich, is a good source of protein. Also, natural, low-sugar and no-sugar condiments are an easy way to find middle ground because these items add flavor to more healthful bases like Greek yogurt and whole-grain breads.
Relationships Are Key
K–12 foodservice directors are faced with many challenges, including driving student participation and complying with strict government regulations and nutritional guidelines. It can be highly beneficial for both the operator and the manufacturer to develop trial partnerships. These partnerships can be used to test new items with students by sending samples to schools and collecting student feedback. This type of relationship can help manufacturers develop items that students will truly want to eat, thus driving meal participation at schools.