Job Corps students can offer valuable input into meal planning. Several opportunities exist to involve students:
Allowing students to influence decisions helps them develop leadership skills and allows them to take ownership in the center.
Many Job Corps centers have food committees that provide the forum for students to offer suggestions for menu planning and dining room operations. Job Corps boasts a diverse population, making diverse and authentic cuisine a necessity on most centers. Therefore, a diverse group of students who wish to express their views and those of their peers can make a positive impact to any center's food service program through participation in a food service committee.
The following are some suggestions for forming a successful food service committee at your center:
- Recruit students who will not only push their own interests, but are capable of expressing the views of their peers.
- Ensure the committee is ethnically and socially diverse and represents the student population.
- Instead of only focusing on meal requests, engage the committee in discussions about the importance of nutrition. Use this as a teaching moment and show students the value of healthy eating.
- Make the food committee fun to entice student participation. Most students spend long days in the classroom or at their worksite. Something has to motivate them to give up their free time and attend a meeting. During meetings, provide healthy snacks. An occasional cooking demonstration or hands-on class can help students learn basic cooking skills to take with them upon completion.
- Hear students out. Some students will want to gripe about the food, regardless of the quality, variety, etc. Spend time listening to criticism, even if it is not always constructive. Figure out the root of the problem.
- Allow students to help develop a menu and search for recipes.
- Encourage students to share information from these meetings with others.
- Share the food service committee's meeting minutes and suggestions with the student body in the cafeteria and residential halls.
The food service's shift leader or department manager should roam from table to table during meals or be stationed at the door as students exit to conduct informal surveys of student satisfaction. This technique has offered centers immediate feedback and can oftentimes provide a solution to problems before they become larger issues.
A survey can supply a lot of information about student likes and dislikes. On food service surveys, students can be asked to rate the food, but should also be asked open-ended questions about their preferences. Since new students are continually arriving on center, students should be surveyed regularly to account for changes in the population.
Many public school districts hold tasting parties that allow students to rate new menu items. At these gatherings, samples of possible future menu items are served to small groups of students. These groups of students rate the potential menu items, which becomes the basis for incorporating new items.
Groups of students should be small, no more than 15-20 students at a time. Students can be selected to participate by lottery, as a reward, or centers can ask students to volunteer. Groups should be diverse as to age, gender and ethnicity. Different students should participate each time a group is convened to get the widest selection of opinions. The number of foods rated can vary. Anywhere between five and ten choices is usually effective; however, if after the initial tasting party, this seems to be too much or too little, adjust the amount of samples. Very small portion sizes of each item should be offered for students to taste, no more than one to two bites. Main menu items can be sampled along with beverages, side dishes and desserts. Do not forget to include special diets, such as gluten-free, vegetarian/ vegan, low-fat, etc.
Prior to the taste-testing party, a scorecard should be created. Each item should be listed, along with a rating and explanation of the rating, e.g., rate on a scale of 1-5, "1" being "dislike very much", "5" being "like very much." There should be room for comments for each food item and general comments. Students should not be asked to identify themselves on the scorecard.
When students arrive at the tasting party, they should be given the scorecard and asked to have a seat. Students should not be allowed to discuss the food during the tasting, to prevent them from influencing each other. Each item should either be clearly marked or described when served to the student so the student knows which item he or she is rating. Ensure care is put into plating items and food is attractive to students.
After the tasting party, thank students for their participation and valuable input. Student's numerical ratings can be averaged and used to compare products. If using a 1-5 scale, all new items introduced should have a rating of four or better. Be sure to read all of the student comments as well. They can be valuable when selecting future items for tasting parties.
Addressing Unhealthy Requests
Try as you may to educate students about their health and the importance of good nutrition, many students will still make requests for fast food, snack chips and sugary desserts. It is unreasonable to expect people to accept a new way of eating or to switch to a strict healthy diet overnight. A balanced diet has its share of comfort foods and desserts. Listen to student requests, but find ways to make these foods fit into the new health-conscious food service program. Some examples are:
- Make fast food favorites healthier. Try lightened-up recipes for cheeseburgers, mac n'cheese, burritos, etc. By using ground turkey instead of beef, reduced fat cheese, and whole wheat products, "fast food" can be healthy food.
- Use creative strategies to make healthy foods appetizing without labeling them as "healthy". Try these:
- For breakfast: serve yogurt parfaits with fresh fruits and granola. Make the presentation look like an ice cream sundae.
- For lunch: set up an entrée salad bar where you normally serve hot dishes. Have students select the ingredients and toss and plate to order.
- For dinner: forget cheese whiz on broccoli. Allow students to choose their healthy vegetable side dish. Pair a healthy entrée with broccoli or other vegetable prepared in enticing ways. For example, broccoli in three ways:
- steamed with optional real cheese topping
- grilled with olive oil
- sautéed in natural Asian flavors
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