Cookie Preferences

Nutritious, On-Trend, Personalized – Reimagining the School Cafeteria

Insights & Innovation |  9.30.2021

When the pandemic closed schools, students and families faced numerous challenges: the shift to virtual classes, cancelled sports and extracurriculars, and uncertainty surrounding reopening schedules. Though much of the typical school day was transformed to an online platform, students still needed access to school meals. To ensure every child could continue to receive high-quality, consistent nutrition – whether they were “roomers” or “Zoomers” – we worked with clients across our K-12 portfolio to deliver breakfasts and lunches safely.

Now, we’re helping schools and students navigate the back-to-school season. As the traditional cafeteria model shifts, we’re accommodating our clients’ new and changing needs by treating their menus and dining environments to a makeover.

Respecting social distancing, staggering lunch schedules, and maintaining classroom efficiency are shifts Stacy Gellman, K-12 Marketing Director, anticipates. Gellman and her team are prioritizing students’ safety and nutrition, while still making school meals students can look forward to.

“Students have been through a lot since the pandemic took hold. We’re proud to be teaming up with our clients in K-12 to keep students’ health top of mind as we design new dining formats, craft on-trend menus, and study students’ changing preferences,” says Gellman.

Coming Back from COVID-19

The pandemic transformed mealtimes for students, both at school and at home. Without large cafeteria settings, students grew accustomed to eating in smaller, more personal environments. At home, parents juggled work, childcare, and virtual learning, leaving little time for kitchen exploration. They needed quick, convenient, healthy meals their kids wanted to eat – meaning many families ordered more takeout and tried new cuisines, broadening their children’s culinary horizons. Research shows that youth expect these preferences for global flavors to be reflected in breakfast and lunch options as they head back to school this fall.

Christina Meinhardt, Director of Menu and Product Development for our K-12 portfolio, is working to add interesting menu offerings that appeal to students’ expanded palates.

“Over the past year, dinnertime rituals were turned upside down with families, and many school-aged children were regularly trying new foods – so now their palettes aren’t limited to what you see on a kid’s menu. Those trends are really starting to permeate within our clients’ spaces now too,” says Meinhardt. 

Meinhardt’s team found that options like Thai curry or street tacos are becoming more popular choices for middle and high schoolers.

Nutrition for Every Child

As a registered nutritionist and a mother, Meinhardt believes that focusing on providing high-quality options is a key to helping all students eat nutritious food every day – and she knows school meals are among the healthiest you can find outside the home. During menu development, she focuses on maximizing fruits and vegetables, while minimizing sodium and saturated fats.

“When students are healthy and well-nourished, they’re ready to learn,” says Meinhardt. “Foods that are kid friendly and nutrient rich aren’t mutually exclusive.”

Through the USDA’s National School Lunch Program, students in eligible states can receive free meals until June 2022, which Meinhardt hopes will significantly increase the number of students participating in school meals. Between March 2020 and July 2021, Aramark has provided great nutrition in the form of 265 million meals to K-12 students and families.

“For developing kids, it’s imperative to get great nutrition on a day-to-day basis. Our responsibility is to make sure school meals are wholesome, filling, and widely accessible,” says Gellman.

Never Underestimate a Student

But for students to eat breakfast and lunch at school, they must be interested in what’s offered. As students grow, so do their meal preferences. As such, the solutions for an elementary school will differ from that at a middle or high school. At every level, Meinhardt and Gellman’s teams work together to offer on-trend, adventurous foods alongside childhood favorites like chicken nuggets and pizza.

“We listen to students, and we respect their choices,” says Meinhardt. “We craft kid-approved, nutritious options that excite and delight them.”

To achieve this for as many students as possible, we’ve turned to our consumer surveys to identify differences in eating habits across various age groups. 

“Even first-graders are tiny consumers,” says Gellman. “Never underestimate a student. If we’re meeting their needs and we’re able to provide what they want, they’ll communicate that to their friends, and they’ll be happy.”

“Students enjoy having their favorite foods available to them but want several options presented,” says Gellman. “They like the independence that comes with customizability, too: like when they can build their own tacos or sandwiches.”

Remaking the Model

Just as our menus are tailored to the tastes of different age groups, so are the dining formats we provide. The pandemic disrupted the traditional cafeteria model, and students are now eating in new environments, like in the classroom or on the playground, in order to prevent crowding and maintain social distance. Our research shows that overall, today’s students are focused on spending as little time picking up food as possible – they want to step into comfortable, inviting spaces with perks like outdoor seating that encourage socialization and relaxation, and that mimic restaurant settings while following safety protocols.

Our teams look to maximize such experiences while minimizing logistical hiccups that keep students from enjoying valuable time with their friends. Through innovations like customized mobile apps, students can preorder lunch, skip the cafeteria line, and get back to hanging out with their peers – wherever that may be. We provide meal options across dayparts, too, and we partner with schools to prepare to-go breakfasts for easy distribution in the classroom, or quick and healthy snacks students can eat for a midday boost or to get them energized for after-school sports.

Making Dining an A+ Experience

“For us, school meals are more than routine – they're an opportunity to create an experience,” affirms Meinhardt. “We’re looking at ways to make every aspect work in students’ best interests.” Our teams are staying abreast of students’ and schools’ needs while expanding the potential of their dining services. This year, we’ll partner with our K-12 clients to feed as many students as possible – safely, nutritiously, and creatively.