DENVER — There will be more whole grains on school lunch menus this year, along with a wider selection of fruits and vegetables and other healthy options. The challenge is getting children to eat them.
‘‘We don’t want healthy trash cans. We want kids who are eating this stuff,’’ said Kern Halls, a former Disney World restaurant manager who works in school nutrition at Orange County Public Schools in Florida.
At a School Nutrition Association conference in Denver this summer, food workers heard tips about how to get children to make healthy food choices in the cafeteria.
The problem is a serious one for the nation’s lunch-line managers, who are implementing the biggest update to federal school-food guidelines in 15 years.
New Department of Agriculture guidelines taking effect this fall set calorie and sodium limits for school meals. Schools must offer dark green, orange, or red vegetables and legumes at least once a week, and students are required to select at least one vegetable or fruit per meal. Flavored milk must be nonfat, and there’s a ban on artificial, artery-clogging trans fats.
At the conference, Halls demonstrated some healthy recipes for curious cafeteria managers, joining White House chef Sam Kass to prepare a veggie wrap using a whole-wheat tortilla.
Halls’ main mission, though, was not pushing new recipes but teaching cafeteria managers marketing strategies used to great success by private-sector restaurants and food producers.
The first step, cafeteria workers were told, is to stop thinking of lunchtime as a break from academics, but a crucial part of a child’s schoolday.
‘‘Your job is not to serve kids food. Your job is motivate kids to be adventurous and healthy eaters,’’ said Barb Mechura, head of nutrition services at schools in Hopkins, Minn.
Her school district recruited parent volunteers to be elementary-school food coaches, touring cafeterias and handing out fruits and vegetable samples. The food coaches also demonstrate eating them. Food coaching may seem silly, but children who have had chicken only as nuggets or patties may not know how to eat bone-in chicken and need to see how a grown-up eats it before trying it.
As the children graduate to middle and high schools, and grown-ups aren’t as welcome in the cafeteria, schools can tap student ambassadors to be food coaches, perhaps asking the baseball team or a popular student athlete to dish out veggies. Or, high school seniors might give underclassmen samples of a new vegetable coming to the cafeteria.
School cafeterias also are using cutting-edge market research. They film what kids eat, test-marketing new products before they go on the line, and doing menu surveys to find out what students think about a dish’s taste, appearance, and temperature.
A Colorado State University professor studied the dining habits of children in Loveland, Colo., with an eye toward measuring ways to get them to choose healthier foods.
Leslie Cunningham-Sabo, who photographed before and after pictures of lunch trays, found that kids eat more fruits and vegetables if they have lunch after recess, instead of before recess.