Goodbye, mystery meat. Hello, Asian wrap with spicy peanut sauce! More school lunch programs are offering a variety of foods like freshly prepared vegetables and fruits, vegetarian options, whole grains and international dishes. One chef on the forefront of this trend is Steven Burke from Austin Independent School District in Texas. Chef Burke is a big fan of peanuts and peanut butter as nutritional powerhouses with wide appeal for his students. He talked with me about how he and his team make school lunch amazing–from the first day of school to the last.

Steven BurkeHow has school lunch changed since you started with AISD?

There are some big differences in the program since I came on board in 2005. We’ve gotten out of the old mentality of meals that included heavy casseroles and a lot of brown and white foods. Now, we emphasize more made-from-scratch cooking and incorporate healthier cooking techniques, like steaming and roasting. We’ve created made-to-order lines that offer more variety and we have more local and seasonal foods.

How do you get students to make healthier food choices at school? Does a lot go to waste?

We try to create an environment to help kids make better choices. For example, as students go through the lines they come to the cold items, like fruit, first. Next, they go to the hot vegetable and entrée. The last thing on the line is the bread item. When we put the components of the meal in that order, the students are more likely to fill up on the items with the most nutritional value.

Giving kids healthier options is beneficial in the long run. Initially, when you add something like roasted vegetables to the menu, a student might take a bite and then throw the rest out. But, more exposure to the dish encourages them to eat more of it over time. AISD received a grant a few years from the St. David Foundation to study these menu changes and it was amazing and encouraging to see how students increased their intake of healthy foods.

Peanut Noodle Bar

Thai peanut sauce is a popular option that pairs well with fresh veggies on the school’s noodle bar.

Is there a particular food or cuisine that’s really popular with students?

Four or five years ago, Asian cuisine took hold of the mainstream and kids were enjoying foods like sweet and sour chicken. Then we thought, how can we take this to the next level? We experimented with specific Asian cuisines, like Thai. We have an Asian line with a Thai peanut sauce at our secondary schools that is very popular. We also feature a Thai Chicken Wrap with Spicy Peanut Sauce that has a flavor profile kids love. Now, Vietnamese cuisine is coming up and we’re working on creating a pho bar with peanut crumble as a topping.

Kids like to eat almost anything with peanuts and peanut butter. We offer a peanut butter and jelly graham cracker sandwich about every week in our elementary schools. Peanuts really are the best value when you consider cost, flavor and nutrition.

Has it been a while since your kids have tried school lunch? Encourage them to take part in a delicious and nutritious meal during National School Lunch Week, Oct. 14-18.