Nutritious alternatives to school lunch staples

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Whether it's high school or first grade, serving a nutritious meal is an important part of working in a school cafeteria. In an ideal world, school cooks would be able to choose something healthy and tasty to feed the children, but many cafeterias are restricted by shrinking budgets and changing nutritional standards. 

In order to walk this tightrope of keeping costs down and meeting federally regulated nutrition standards, cafeteria workers may feel like they no longer have the control that they'd like over the school's menu. Luckily, there's some leeway and a few alternative options to fulfill these requirements for creating meals that are both healthy and unique. Here are a few suggestions for how cooks can meet the nutrition guidelines with a creative flair. 

Incorporate edamame 
One of the United States Department of Agriculture's nutritional standards calls for meat in school lunches. However, the federal agency also provides alternatives for children who are vegetarians or people who don't want to eat meat. Among these alternatives is edamame, which was recently added to the guidelines. Whether shelled or whole, these soy beans are a nutritious treat that can easily be prepared in massive quantities. 

For cafeteria workers who are considering serving edamame to see what the kids think of the delicious and unique bean, there are a number of tasty ways to serve it up. Although steaming is a popular way to cook edamame, a cost-effective and flavor-enhancing alternative is to roast them with olive oil, salt and pepper. These simple ingredients can be incorporated on a large scale and make for a tasty alternative to meat.

Embrace smoothies 
Another recent USDA rule change amended the ways that fruit smoothies during breakfast can be counted toward nutrition. Smoothies are a great option for schools because, like many lunch dishes, they can be made on a large scale and can take advantage of frozen fruits without much preparation time. The new USDA rules explain that the yogurt used in a breakfast smoothie will count toward a daily requirement. 

In a smoothie, any milk used can be counted for the morning milk requirement, and fruit – canned, frozen, whole or dried – can be counted as fruit juice. Also, yogurt can be credited as an alternative to meat for breakfast only. 

When trying to save money, another reason that smoothies can be so effective is because they can be made out of few ingredients and kids love them. Yogurt, milk, frozen fruit and 100-percent fruit juice can create a healthy fruit smoothie that tastes great and meets three nutrition requirements for breakfast. 

Get creative with whole grains 
The USDA rules state that schools must use whole grain-rich foods for lunch. This includes nearly every grain product, from pizza dough to sandwich bread. Among the approved whole grain-rich foods are corn tortillas that are made using wet milling procedures where corn is treated with lime. 

By using corn tortillas, cafeteria workers have hundreds of options for what they can serve at lunch that's tasty and qualifies as a whole grain. There are a variety of South-of-the-Border dishes like burritos and quesadillas that can be made with these whole-grain corn tortillas and loaded with beans, veggies and other nutritious lunch components. 

It's important to remember that just because there are budgetary restrictions and large-scale demand you don't have to fall back to old classics like hamburgers or pizza. There are a number of creative options that can fulfill all of the nutritional needs as well as children's bellies. 

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