By Jennifer Wohlleb
At Campbell Ridge Elementary School there is no mystery to getting kids to try new things and eat healthy foods, but there is a mystery chef – at least on Fridays.
Introducing a mystery chef is just one of the many ways the cafeteria staff at this Campbell County school get kids to eat healthy foods and items that are new to them, as well as to make them feel welcome.
“Our kids look forward to every Friday to see who it’s going to be,” said School Nutrition Manager Patricia Sullivan. One mother, she said, told her that was the only day she could easily get her son up in the mornings. “The kids never know who it’s going to be. It’s more of a greeting thing than actual cooking.”
PHOTO: Music teacher Juanita Nelson has fun with her role as Mystery Chef at Campbell Ridge Elementary School.
Mystery chefs have ranged from the head custodian to the principal to teachers.
Sullivan said the success of the food program is an outgrowth of the positive atmosphere she and her staff have fostered. Sixty-eight percent of Campbell Ridge students buy their lunch in the cafeteria, along with 39 percent at breakfast. The lunch number has remained the same for two years, an accomplishment, she said, given the recent federal changes in meal requirements.
“We do some different things here,” she said. “We don’t want anyone to come through the line and say ‘Ew, I don’t like that,’ for the simple fact that the guy behind him might love it and that child in front of him has already influenced him from getting it.
“We really try to push different things. Everything that we bring in here, we as a staff have tried that food. So when we tell them, ‘Eat it, try it, it’s delicious,’ we mean it. We try to be positive with these kids and that’s the main thing, because sometimes it’s the best meal that they get (that day).”
Principal Anthony Mazzei said the key is to make it fun.
“I think kids will try just about anything if they see adults really pushing them and encouraging them and making it fun,” he said. “The first few times we had black beans, I would just put it in a bowl and walk around and say, ‘Oh look, you forgot your black beans,’ and put some on their trays. And a lot of kids tried them even though they didn’t put them on their trays when they went through the line. We’ve been having it all year and more kids are taking it in line now.”
He said kids will make healthy choices when adults make it easy for them.
“I think kids are going to be kids, and as long as what you’re offering is healthy choices and lunchtime is an enjoyable time of the day, they will try and they will eat,” Mazzei said.
The staff also tries to keep its offerings fresh so students don’t get tired of eating the same thing. Sullivan said it can be as simple as offering a variety of salad dressings.
“We have different salad dressings every day, so even if the salad is the same, it won’t be the same and you can choose a different dressing,” she said. “Last year I went out with little cups of dressing and said, ‘This is my favorite dressing,’ and the kids love to try different things.”
Mazzei said adults also need to acknowledge that lunchtime is an important part of a student’s day and treat it that way.
“You have to recognize that lunch and going out to recess, that’s their break,” he said. “They can’t dread coming to the lunchroom because they think they’re going to be yelled at, because it’s a rigid atmosphere. It needs to be an enjoyable break in the middle of the day. And if you have that kind of relaxed atmosphere, you can start presenting healthy choices; kids are more receptive to it. I’ve seen lunchrooms that are dictatorships, and it’s silent and they’re seated in rows. That’s not an atmosphere where kids are going to try and experiment or be open to new ideas.”
Sullivan tries to keep the cafeteria experience lively with special events, such as having musicians play during meals and designating theme days, such as the recent one celebrating the opening day of Reds baseball. The staff sometimes wear matching aprons made by a local woman. Fruit smoothies have become a big hit with the students, popular when the staff have time to make them for breakfast and even more so when they take them to classrooms for special treats.
“That’s a great thing when we go walking down the hallways or out to recess,” Sullivan said. “We wear (special) hats (for smoothie parties) and when they see us wearing these particular hats they know smoothies are coming out for someone. We look crazy, but we’re delivering smoothies and the kids are wondering which class we’re delivering to. It’s fun.”
She said extras like smoothie parties take additional time, but her staff have been willing to go the extra mile, even if it means donating a little time.
“We have an awesome crew here,” she said. “They are always upbeat, they are always positive. They go out of their way trying to make these kids feel special. I just think they eat better because I think they feel better about who fixes their food.”