Students rate healthy meal options at Try-Day Friday

An innovative program funded by Kohl's department stores introduces healthy meal options to children and then lets them vote on what they like best in an effort to encourage better eating habits in the battle against childhood obesity.

Students rate healthy meal options at Try-Day Friday click to enlarge Studies have linked good nutrition with optimizing children's health and success in school.

The childhood obesity epidemic has brought many different ideas and approaches to helping children learn to eat more healthy foods, and making those changes can be especially difficult when it comes to school lunch. A partnership between UNC Children’s and the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention—funded through a grant from Kohl’s department stores—is enabling cafeteria staff in Orange County to develop healthier menu options and solicit feedback from the most important stakeholders: students themselves.

“The goal of the project is to get kids to try new foods and build enthusiasm around the school lunch program in Orange County Schools,” said Larissa Calancie, who is leading the project from the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

The initiative brought professional chef Ryan McGuire of the Chefs Academy in Morrisville, N.C., in consultation with the school nutrition staff in Orange County elementary schools to develop new menu options that were healthy, tasty, and met with federal nutritional guidelines for schools. The study culminated in a taste testing event called Try-Day Friday in each of the seven elementary schools in Orange County. 

Students tried three new dishes: super Caesar salad; crispy fish wraps; and French toast casserole with apples. After sampling the items, students completed a short survey indicating whether they liked each and if they would try the items again.

“I really liked the fish,” said Tia Hilber, a fourth grade student at Hillsborough Elementary School. Her classmates agreed, and some even asked for second helpings.

“I loved the salad, especially the dressing,” said Isabel Sutton, also a fourth grader at Hillsborough Elementary. “The only thing is I wish it had more vegetables than just the cabbage and carrots.”

The recipe development and taste testings are part of the Kohl’s FAV5 Club. The program and its website offer practical, evidence-based strategies for encouraging healthy eating and physical activity among children and adults.

The program launched at the start of the academic year with information sessions for parents, teachers, administrators, and cafeteria staff, establishing the powerful influence that healthy eating and exercise habits have on brain development, academic success and overall well-being. Students received water bottles to stress the importance of hydration and pedometers to help them track their activity.

Eliana Perrin, MD, MPH, a professor of pediatrics at the UNC School of Medicine who is involved with phase two of the program’s development, which will take place in the Chapel Hill-Carborro Schools, says it is important for children and parents to understand the health consequences of childhood obesity.

“In North Carolina, 19 percent of children are classified as obese and less than one-third of elementary school children consume recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables,” said Dr. Perrin. “Obese children and adolescents may experience immediate health consequences and may be at risk for weight-related health problems in adulthood.”

The child nutrition services staff in Orange County schools plan to add some of these menu items to the school lunch menu beginning in the spring. They also plan to partner with No Kid Hungry NC to capitalize on the enthusiasm generated in the Kohl's project and increase student participation in school breakfast as part of ongoing efforts to improce access to healthy food in support children's health and school success.

Lisa Sales, the child nutrition manager at Hillsborough Elementary, said she was very excited to be a part of the project.

“It gives me joy to see them eating healthy foods, and fresh foods,” said Sales. “I’m a trained chef and this is part of the reason I went to school. These children are our future, and seeing them eat healthy foods is why we are here.”

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