How to Decrease Sodium and Increase Flavor in School Breakfasts and Lunches

By: Executive Chef Michael Morris
Jul 10, 2017 5:45 PM ET

Five years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture enacted new, science-based nutrition standards for the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. These standards were the first major changes to school lunches in 15 years, and they do much to improve the nutrition of the meals served to children all over the country.

For those of us who create and serve meals at schools, this offered a new opportunity. We were challenged to come up with new ways to create healthy food that would still appeal to the palates of all kinds of children, including those with allergies or special dietary requirements.

Among the new standards is a requirement to reduce the sodium content of elementary, middle and high school meals. It calls for a 50 percent reduction in sodium over a 10-year period, with two intermediate sodium targets. Target 1 took effect on July 1, 2014, and Target 2 sodium requirements are going into effect July 1, 2017. As we approach this second target, we’ve discovered best practice for reducing a meal’s sodium, while maintaining its appeal.

Use new ingredients

Rather than rely on sodium to flavor food, look for new ingredients that pack a lot of flavor. When I develop new recipes I rely on herbs and spices to naturally flavor the dishes. For example, using alternative seasonings, we reduced the sodium level in turkey franks by 63 percent and yellow round baked tortilla chips by 23 percent in a year.

I also like to use naturally flavorful fruits. They don’t just add nutrition—they also add more variety of flavors.

Offer new products

Since the requirements were announced in 2012, many food manufacturers have been developing new products that are lower in sodium. While these products take time to develop and bring to market, more and more of them have become available. Work with vendors to sample lower-sodium recipes with students before they are used in school menus.

Our vendor partners send samples to a select group in our respective schools’ culinary market and the representatives sample the products with local students to collect data which is used to determine if the product will be a viable substitution. Our goal is to engage students in the process of determining recipes that will be accepted by their peers and ultimately successful on their school’s breakfast and lunch menus.

Offer variety

Students are the ones making decisions about what they do and don’t eat. Encourage that. Offer a wide variety of healthful options while gently nudging them to try new foods. It’s an effective way to promote acceptance and increase consumption of lower sodium foods.

How do you encourage young people to eat more healthfully? Share your ideas in the comments on Sodexo Insights.