Got Chard? School Cooks Learn New Recipes With Fresh Ingredients

Aug 15, 2014

With a new school year just around the corner, cafeterias are gearing up for hordes of hungry kids. And there are new federal guidelines for making more nutritious breakfasts and lunches.

But young eaters can be picky. So school chefs in Vermont have created a new cookbook filled with healthy, appealing, kid-tested dishes. The recipes recently got a trial run in the culinary arts room at St. Johnsbury Academy, where school nutritionists gathered for a summer institute.

Rebecca Cragin, a cook in Orange County North Supervisory Union, washes chard for a vegetable pie at a summer institute for school nutritionists at St. Johnsbury Academy.
Rebecca Cragin, a cook in Orange County North Supervisory Union, washes chard for a vegetable pie at a summer institute for school nutritionists at St. Johnsbury Academy.
Credit Charlotte Albright / vpr

Rebecca Cragin, who cooks for Orange County students in Williamstown, helped to make a huge pie from leeks, brown rice and a leafy vegetable a lot of kids don’t always see in their home refrigerators.

“I’m cleaning up the Swiss chard for this recipe so we can cut it up and boil it down,” she explained.

The chard, with red and green and yellow stems, made a rainbow in the stainless steel sink.

The recipe comes from a colorful new cookbook called “New School Cuisine: Nutritious and Seasonal Recipes for School Cooks by School Cooks.” Funded in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it’s a team effort by the Vermont Agency of Education, Vermont Feed, Shelburne Farms, and the School Nutrition Association.

Abbie Nelson, education eirector at the Northeast Organic Farming Association, supervised kitchen duty at the institute. She says food service directors can phase in new rules and recipes more easily if healthy food is introduced to kids in more than one way. And if the students are allowed to try things without being forced to eat them.

"You need partnerships with teachers who are going to help you introduce new foods, whether it's in the classroom, and say, 'here's a rutabaga, here's what it looks like, it has vitamin C and it has vitamin A and you can eat it raw or you can eat it cooked." - Abbie Nelson, Northeast Organic Farming Association

“How do you do that? Well, in 20 minutes of a lunch you don’t do that, there’s no way. So what do you need? You need partnerships with teachers who are going to help you introduce new foods, whether it’s in the classroom, and say, ‘here’s a rutabaga, here’s what it looks like, it has vitamin C and it has vitamin A and you can eat it raw or you can eat it cooked,’” Nelson said.

Or how about roasted butternut squash tossed in a tangy dressing with black beans and quinoa and cilantro? That’s what Kari Dexter, a child care center cook from St. Johnsbury, was whipping up.

“Sounds a little fancy for my palate but I’m excited,” she said, mincing cilantro.

These recipes are a little fancy—not the canned lima beans baby boomers used to push aside on lunch trays. But even children live in a foodie society now. One of the cookbook’s 14 writers has been helping schools in Burlington spice up their menus. Kortnee Bush says finding fresh ingredients is a lot easier than it used to be, and kids are literally eating them up. Soon to open her own restaurant, she contributed her recipe for a winter vegetable soup.

“This can be done so many different ways with all different types of vegetables. When I do this soup at home I typically do it without noodles. But I have learned working with children that when you put noodles with things they’re more likely to take it,” Bush said.

Kortnee Bush, a contributor to "New School Cuisine:Nutritious and Seasonal Recipes by School Cooks for School Cooks," displays her recipe for vegetable soup.
Kortnee Bush, a contributor to "New School Cuisine:Nutritious and Seasonal Recipes by School Cooks for School Cooks," displays her recipe for vegetable soup.
Credit Charlotte Albright / vpr

And with that bite of noodles, they also get their leafy greens, and maybe even a ruby red morsel they may not even recognize as a vitamin-rich beet.   

You can download the cookbook, New School Cuisine, for free, or order your own hard copy. But if you are a family chef, keep your calculator handy. Each recipe serves at least 50.