Chef in school kitchen boosts healthy eating

June 7, 2012 — What’s a good way to encourage students to eat healthier school meals? Change the food and put a chef in the school kitchen, say researchers from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). According to a new study, when cafeteria staffs are trained by a chef in ways to create meals that are both nutritious and tasty, students eat more whole grains, vegetables, and other healthy foods.

“Familiarizing students with healthy, good tasting foods in schools may change their eating habits and overall health,” said lead author Juliana Cohen, research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at HSPH.

The study was published in the June 2012 Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Watch an HSPH video featuring students at Boston’s Curley K-8 School, one of the Chef Initiative schools in the study.

Although schools generally strive to meet nutritional requirements of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), meals are often too high in saturated fats, the researchers wrote. In addition, until recently, NSLP guidelines did not address sodium, whole grains, or fiber, so school cafeteria food was not even close to meeting the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendations.

The Chef Initiative was a two-year pilot program developed by Project Bread, a nonprofit anti-hunger organization; Boston Public Schools (BPS); the Boston Public Health Commission; and HSPH. The program was conducted from 2007 to 2009 in two Boston middle schools; two other “control” schools served the usual school cafeteria food. Because food service directors often are concerned that healthier offerings may be less tasty and unappealing to students, it was thought that a chef could help the staff make meals more palatable and healthier at the same cost.

Project Bread hired a chef to develop recipes, plan menus, and train cafeteria staff two or three days per week at the two Chef Initiative schools. The chef designed new menus resembling the standard BPS menus, but incorporated more whole grains, fresh/frozen fruits and vegetables, and less sugar, salt, saturated fats, and trans fats. Diets emphasizing these elements have been shown to help decrease risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Cafeteria staff were trained to replace trans fats and saturated fats with unsaturated fats; swap whole and reduced-fat milk for skim or 1% milk; limit chocolate milk; and substitute low-fat cheese for regular cheese. Staff cooked with oils instead of butter; replaced canned fruits and vegetables with fresh or frozen; eliminated pastries; removed salt from recipes; replaced whole grains for refined grains; and made sure lunches had at least five grams of fiber. To improve taste, sauces and salad dressings were made from scratch. For example, in the Chef Initiative schools, the traditional meatball sandwich on a white roll was replaced with a meatball dish made with whole wheat pasta and a low-sodium sauce. Grilled cheese sandwiches were made with low-fat cheese instead of whole-fat cheese, and served on wheat bread instead of white bread.

At the end of the experiment Cohen and her colleagues, including Eric Rimm, associate professor in the departments of epidemiology and nutrition at HSPH and senior author, conducted a plate waste study to measure what was being eaten by 1,609 students at the two Chef Initiative schools and 1,440 students at two control schools. Researchers spent two days at the schools logging what students chose for lunch and what was still on their trays after lunch.

The researchers found students at the Chef Initiative schools, who were only served the healthier offerings, consumed on average about two more servings of vegetables per week. Also, nearly 86% of the students at the chef schools chose at least one serving of whole grains compared to about 35% of the control group. The researchers found that when students had limited access to chocolate milk, they selected and consumed similar quantities of white milk (nonfat and 1% milk) as students with access to chocolate milk.

The authors note that larger, long-term randomized studies are needed to corroborate these findings, assess the cost impact, and evaluate the impact of the dietary changes on health outcomes and food choices outside of school.

“Naysayers to healthy food in schools frequently say that kids won’t eat better food. We showed that if it tastes good, they see how the food is made, and see the same foods for a whole school year, they do eat better,” Rimm said. “We still have a long way to go, but this is a very positive first step.”

S. Bryn Austin, associate professor, Department of Society, Human Development and Health, also participated in the study.

The study was funded by Project Bread and with funding in memory of O. Milton Gossett.

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–Marge Dwyer