Helping Kids Learn to Love Fruits and Vegetables

Published on : 12/13/22
  • Chef Michael Morris is on a mission: to raise healthy kids who love fruits and vegetables.

    Research shows that less than 12% of kids eat enough vegetables and less than 50% eat enough fruit. That’s where school meals can help, says Chef Michael, Senior Manager of Culinary Offer and Implementation. It turns out students who are eligible for free or reduced-cost school meals eat healthier than their peers. (Parents also have a huge influence on kids’ tastes.)

    School meals are a chance to train kids’ palates, says Chef Michael, who oversees recipe development and training for Sodexo's K-12 schools in North America. As chefs, we have a responsibility to drive consumption by creating flavors that are fun, fresh and flavorful.

    Enter Edgy Veggies. Chef Michael and Senior Manager of Nutritional Systems Stacie Reiter recently unveiled this fun new campaign, along with Mad Crops, Fire Fruit, Fresh Picks and From the Garden — which are all targeted by age.

    Edgy Veggies introduces elementary students to plant-forward eating with exciting flavors. The goal is to make vegetables enticing, rather than relying heavily on meat substitutes.

    We don’t want to just give them raw baby carrots and ranch dip, Chef Michael says. So, if it’s a carrot, it might be an apple-glazed baby carrot. For middle school, it might be a Moroccan-spiced carrot; for high school, a spicy Thai carrot. If you were to just go straight into the super spicy Thai carrot, it might be too much for young kids.

    Sodexo chefs want to build tolerance for flavors over time without creating negative food experiences. They also aim to prepare students for more plant-based eating in college.

    Tandoori flavors, curries and Thai chilis are all popular, along with familiar foods like braised collard greens, chicken and dumplings, fried chicken and barbeque. Techniques like smoking, pickling, roasting and caramelizing also enhance flavor. And we still serve burgers, hot dogs and chicken nuggets, Chef Michael jokes.

    These efforts also align with a tendency among today's students to seek more adventurous flavors, he says. Their experience matches the retail environment. With more people eating out and popular food television programs and TikTok videos … all these things make it easy to see super-cool food.

    Generations Z and Alpha are also more attuned to environmental and health issues than previous generations, making plant-based meals more popular.

    In pursuit of Sodexo’s commitment to making 42% of our campus menu offerings plant-based by 2025, schools are serving up dishes such as black bean tacos, burritos and burgers. We’re looking at the environmental impact, he says.

    Plant-based dishes can also help save on food costs if chefs use fresh produce, as opposed to highly processed items or meat alternatives.

    Ultimately, taste is key. If kids pass on an item or throw it away, it wastes both food and the opportunity to deliver nutrition. You can plan it, you can cook it, but if you’re not giving them a vegetable in the way they want to eat it, it doesn’t help their nutrition, Chef Michael says.

    Creating delicious food has another upside: employee satisfaction. The staff takes pride and ownership in making healthy food fun for kids.

    You cook because you want the person eating that dish to be happy, the chef says. There’s nothing like hearing, ‘Those were the best carrots or cauliflower!’ That’s joy.

    Download Our Black Bean and Sweet Potato Taco Recipe