3 Ways to Personalize School Menus to Fit Every Student

By: Sherry Coleman Collins, MS, RDN, LD

From restaurants to meal kits, offering customization options has become a menu mainstay.  Personalization also fits with trends like plant-based eating and DIY finishes. Plus, personalization allows for flexibility for staff and customers, respects individual differences and helps manage allergies and other special diets. Let’s dive into three ways that school districts can include personalization in student menus, plus ways to put the concept into practice. 
1. Plant-Based Menus
There are many labels for diets that emphasize plant foods. Vegetarian may include cow’s milk, dairy and eggs. Vegan diets exclude all foods derived from animals. People may choose these eating patterns for personal, ethical or religious reasons. There are also varieties of these diets that are popular, like pescatarians, who follow a vegetarian eating pattern that includes fish, or flexitarians, who may occasionally eat animal products. The terms plant-based and plant-forward encourage making plant foods the center of the plate while also including animal products. Six out of 10 Americans report following a vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based diet to be healthier, according to the International Food Information Council.
Offering plant-based options in school meals recently became law in California and Illinois, and in 2022, K12 contract feeder Chartwells added 120 plant-forward meals options for schools. In surveying school-aged students, the company found 1 in 3 rated vegetarian or vegan options extremely or very important when choosing lunch at school. Thirty-seven percent said they would eat school lunch more often if there were more vegetarian and vegan choices. Enticing plant-based options include Watermelon Poke Bowl; Tuscan Bean and Basil Penne Salad; Tofu Huevos Rancheros; Thai Sweet Chili Tofu Bowl; and Sweet Potato and Spinach Vindaloo.
2. Cultural Foods and Religious Dietary Restrictions
Each culture of the world has different eating styles that may include dietary restrictions.  Students may eat aligned with their backgrounds and that may influence food choices at school. Religious dietary restrictions may mean animal foods are avoided, like for followers of Hinduism, Buddhism and Seventh Day Adventist. Those who follow Judaism may avoid pork and shellfish and may keep Kosher. Muslims may eat only certified-halal meat and have fasting periods during specific times of the year such as Ramadan. Some Christians choose fish on Fridays during the season of Lent.
School districts in the state of New York are putting cultural menu offerings into practice. “In Harlem, the meal of the day might be barbecue chicken and collard greens,” according to a recent article. “In Newark, Portuguese-heritage teachers are thrilled to teach their classes the charcoal-grilled origins of hot-salty-sour peri peri chicken. In South Jersey’s Camden County, some students may see the savory, tomato-rich comforts of West African jollof rice. And in the strongly Caribbean South Bronx, students might sit down to a meal of scratch-made Trinidadian curry with roti flatbread.”
3. Managing Special Dietary Restrictions
The cuisines and dietary patterns around the world as highlighted above often include common allergens, like peanuts, tree nuts and soy. However, successfully managing food allergies in schools is possible, and doesn’t require banning or eliminating peanuts or any other foods from school menus. Comprehensive approaches to food allergy management are key and schools can find resources at PeanutsinSchools.org.
The School District of Lee County in Fort Myers, Florida added peanut butter back to the district’s offerings in 2022, after a nearly 20-year ban due to allergies. Amy Carroll, coordinator of Food and Nutrition Services, said, "Now we're faced with unprecedented times with supply shortages, labor shortages just a variety of factors that have led us to reexamine bringing peanut butter back on the menu because it's an affordable, available commodity that kids enjoy eating.” The district rolled out an extensive communications campaign to the community and followed precautions to continue to keep students with peanut allergy protected, including product stickers and additional signage.

Suggestions for Implementing Personal Menus 
Putting personalization into practice can look like:
  • Offer vs. serve
  • Condiments, sauces and toppings in individually packaged cups or self-serve
  • DIY salad bars at lunch and bagel bars with peanut butter at breakfast
  • Staffed stations for salads, sandwiches, pizza and pasta
  • Bowl stations featuring a variety of proteins, grains, vegetables and sauces
  • Mobile ordering, catering and a la cart options 
Whenever you’re making adjustments to the menu with specific groups or eating patterns in mind, getting the school community involved to seek authentic input is essential.
Districts can also explore procurement strategies like doing a separate Special Diet Bid if available or required to help make meeting students’ needs more affordable. 
Staff buy-in is an important part of getting them excited to prepare and serve the food, and that is a positive influence on students’ experience. 
Marketing is a useful tool to spread awareness and interest in personalized menu options, like a poster or social media post promoting a new menu item or LTO.
For staff and students, teaching the “why” of the personalized menu can help them understand and appreciate the personalization strategy.
It also presents an opportunity for skills development, like following best practices for food safety and allergen management or a how-to prepare an unfamiliar food.  
Personalizing the menu can help all students feel honored, included and excited about school food.

For more information about serving peanuts in K12, visit PeanutsinSchools.org.

You must be logged in to view this item.

This area is reserved for members of the news media. If you qualify, please update your user profile and check the box marked "Check here to register as an accredited member of the news media". Please include any notes in the "Supporting information for media credentials" box. We will notify you of your status via e-mail in one business day.