Chef Corbin Tomaszeski asked students to come up with ideas he could incorporate into healthy foods to be served up during a pilot project launching in September.
Tomaszeski, who was tasked by food service company Chartwells School Dining to create some new recipes, met with students last spring at three schools in different districts to learn what flavours would tickle their tastebuds.
Along with asking them what they wanted to see in their cafeteria, he also discussed what they didn't want "because at the end of the day they have a voice. We've got to listen to them and they know what they like and dislike so it would make complete sense to listen to that."
The students in the focus groups — 15 to 20 pupils from a variety of grades at schools in Whitby, Ajax and Mississauga — requested foods that have big bold flavours, including Mexican, Latin American and Asian cuisine.
"It made complete sense because when you think about it they're exposed to social media every single day and they see what's happening with food," says Tomaszeski. "They see the trends. They're going to restaurants and places that focus on great-tasting food so why would we not pay attention to that in the school system?"
With the information he'd gleaned, the host of Food Network Canada shows "Dinner Party Wars," "Restaurant Makeover" and "Restaurant Takeover," set to work creating menus. Then he returned to the schools with the dishes he'd designed and had all the students taste his sample menus. The total student population of the three schools combined was 3,720.
"I really wanted to do foods that were memorable, uncomplicated but still satisfy those cravings but also touch on flavour and layering of flavours, just textures and just good, great-tasting homemade food," he says.
Another goal was to "get the kids to stop going to these quick-service restaurants where they get the unhealthy bits that are really inexpensive but are so bad for them. Food fuels your mind and if you can't fuel your body and your mind at a school you're not going to have a good performance," he says.
One item inspired by food truck fare was crispy chicken bites, sliced chicken breasts encrusted with vegetable chips that are baked, then skewered and served in an Asian takeout container. Accompanying the bites were zucchini sticks coated with panko crumbs and Parmesan cheese.
"We serve it with a wicked slaw and a great dipping sauce and the kids loved it. I was hearing things like 'I love zucchini,'" he says with surprise.
"But it was something different, something fun. But more importantly it was really flavourful. It was foods they'd never had before and really, the bonus, the entire great thing about this at the end was it's a healthy alternative for eating in the schools."
The father of three boys says he purposely waited until the reactions were in to mention the health factor. "It's like any other child at home. You sit at the dining room table and tell them to eat your brussels sprouts or spinach because it's healthy for you. Are they going to eat it? No. So we focused on the flavour, focused on the presentation, focused on the fun factor and, by the way, it's healthy.
"They really took to it. They were very receptive. They enjoyed it."
Another student request was pasta. Tomaszeski baked penne with a low-fat, sour cream-based sauce with fresh sage, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and ground turkey, which also drew raves. Another version had tomato sauce with ground beef and bocconcini cheese.
The accompaniment was a reinvented caesar salad "which every kid loves but which is so unhealthy." Kale is tossed in a Greek yogurt dressing that mimics traditional caesar dressing without as many calories or as much fat. "Serve it with some Italian bread knots and they've got a healthy home-style meal like no other and it's happening in school which is fantastic," the Toronto-based Tomaszeski adds.
Another dish was black bean and grilled chicken tostadas with Mexican-style rice.
The new menu items will be featured on Thursdays at 255 schools in 33 Ontario boards. "If all goes well, our hope is we'll roll out in over 600 schools in Canada," he says.
Prices for the meals run from $5 to $7.
"We're coming up with new ideas all the time so we have seasonal rotating menus where we take advantage of fresh local ingredients but still keep in mind uncomplicated, fun, comfort-style dishes made from scratch that happen to be healthy," Tomaszeski says.
Tomaszeski says he had one "amazing" email from a parent after her son returned from school on a test day: "I've never heard him speak about food and be that excited in such a long time. Thank you for doing what you're doing," he related.
"That's one of those moments when you realize you're doing the right thing. It was a feel-good thing, for sure."
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