How to Please Your Biggest Critics

Tips to gather and use feedback from students to optimize your menu.
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You put a lot of hard work into planning your menus, but success is only achieved if you are pleasing your toughest critics—your students. As you look for new ways to get kids excited about eating at school, it’s important to establish an open dialogue with students to find out what they will get excited about and enjoy.

"Student feedback is instrumental in ensuring menu success so that you are serving food that kids will accept and be excited about eating," says Brent Budke, global consumer insights senior manager at General Mills Convenience & Foodservice. "Kids are very honest and can give you input which you can use to strengthen your program and drive participation."

Brent, who regularly conducts research with both kids and operators on behalf of General Mills Foodservice, says organizing ways for kids to provide feedback doesn’t have to be a daunting task. He offers some turnkey tips to establish a process and make it fun:

  • Observe and Talk to Kids: Designate a staff person to make rounds in the cafeteria during meal times to watch what kids are enjoying, hear what they are saying, and collect some on-the-spot feedback. Encourage students to share what they like about what they are eating and not just what they don’t. Report back to the kitchen staff once a week on what was learned.
  • Let Kids Vote or Express Their Opinion: Consider a suggestion box, or better yet, let kids vote on 4-5 new items you are considering introducing. They become more invested and will look forward to seeing and trying the winning ideas.
  • Special of the Day: If you have a newer item, make it a “special of the day” to introduce it and collect feedback. If you’re not sure what to call it, or want kids to engage, let them name it! And then once they’ve tried it, let them vote on whether it should stay or go.
  • Student Panels: Coordinate a small panel of students to share feedback on a regular basis. Tap them throughout the year to sample and “taste test” certain products and share feedback that you can use to guide purchase decisions.
  • Involve Parents: Consider passing out your menu and nutrition information at parent/teacher conferences or other big school events, with perhaps an email where they can share their thoughts or ideas as well.

"Engaging students in the menu planning process goes a long way in boosting participation," said Mark Chavez, director of nutrition services at Santa Ana Unified School District in Santa Ana, Calif., where they hosted its first ever district wide "Voice Your Choice" event last May.

The student and parent food show included more than 160 samples from approximately 60 different vendors or manufacturers to showcase food products the school was considering for breakfast, lunch and snack menus. Held on a weekend, the event also included student talent for entertainment and a raffle. Both students and parents voted at each booth with the data being used to make menu choices for the following school year.

Chavez credits the "Voice Your Choice" event for helping the district boost in participation by 20 percent at breakfast and 10 percent at lunch this school year. He says the event also helped to dispel common misperceptions about school food as it allowed parents to see for themselves the foods the school is serving and sample it alongside their children.

"It’s all about empowering the students and giving them an opportunity to share their opinions," says Chavez. "Giving students a voice in the matter ensures we are serving the foods they want to eat. This process also helps to generate word-of-mouth and trials as these students are more likely to encourage their friends to try the new items they had a hand in getting on the menu."