Innovation in the school lunch room


Last month, I went to Las Vegas to attend School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) annual conference. I learned and talked so much that I was exhausted after the several hours I was there. A big part of what I did was tour the exhibit floor with several different people from SNA and from my local school district in Georgia as well as a smaller one in Illinois.  I’ve shared 15 surprising things you might not know about your kids school lunch, but I also wanted to share some of the innovation I saw already in place and coming to school cafeterias.

Innovation in the school lunch room


Over the years of visiting my girls at school, I was and am really bothered that they had switched lunch trays from hard, durable and reusable plastic to polystyrene that ends up in a trash bag. That’s a lot of styrofoam waste. A couple schools in our county as well as around the country are now using this “advanced polystyrene waste reduction system.”

Students empty their trays and stack them. The stack is then placed into the machine where it is melted down to a small plastic block. Once enough blocks are created, they are sent to the company where they extract out all of the oils and carbons and other products and reuse them to create brand new trays.

polystyrene lunch tray recylcing


Another option schools are exploring is compostable materials like lunch trays, boxes and plates. There is, however, still an issue with this and it’s not quite where it needs to be. When I asked what was done with the used compostable materials (i.e., are they actually composted), I was told that they were placed in trash bags. While the idea of composting containers is great, once they go into trash bags, the compositing process is pretty much brought to a halt.

They admitted that they were ahead of the time a bit and the compostable trash bags weren’t up to par with the needs of the schools as they break down too quickly and result in messes. I hope that they decide to work on a compostable trash bag or another solution to using these compostable plates and trays or else it just seems like a waste.

I really like the idea of composting the containers and I hope they explore ways to remove the food items or some way to compost at the school level.


With the massive amounts of foods most school and districts are ordering, there is potential for so much waste. Both waste of food as well as time. There are many systems and programs that schools can order to help this process run much smoother. Most of these allow for a person to plug in the number of children being served and the time period (like a semester) to create a full order. This even included menus.

So, they can put that they are feeding 1,200 people for 4 weeks, and this will tell them exactly what to order for all of those students and all of the meals during that time. This saves so much time and helps limit the waste.

technology helping in the school cafeteria

New Kitchen Appliances

It might not be innovative for all places, but it is very new for school lunch rooms. They have started to bring in things like machines that can juice fruits and vegetables as well as slice, dice and spiralize them. The hope is that this equipment can help further reduce waste and use more parts of the produce schools purchase.

Additionally, kids seem to really like fruits and veggies when they are cut up and presented in different ways.

juice + veggie cutter

New Food Products

It was pretty cool to see so many products that were adapting to new requirements for low sodium, sugar, and fruit and vegetable additions. Some companies really have their “A-game” on. And honestly, it would be nice to see these products available to consumers, too. One of my favorite new products is these Dark Sweet Cranberries. They are so tasty and had no added sugar!

Cranberries for new lunches

More to Love

In line with these requirements, schools are also developing new recipes with international flavors. These new recipes have children exploring new flavors and spices and have fewer artificial flavors, colors or preservatives while still having BOLD flavor.

Food Trucks / Self-service entree bars

So many adults love food trucks and kids love what grown ups love. So the idea of having a food truck come to school lunches is pretty fascinating. They can provide new and different food options and the kids will be more likely to explore them because they are served in a different and fun way.

I also like the idea of self-service entree bars. When kids make the choice for what they are going to eat, they are more likely to actually eat what they picked. And with a salad bar like this, for example I know I would be more likely to eat lunch at school with my kids.

self-serve entree bar

Mobile Kitchen Carts

Our local school district’s dietitians developed nutrition education lesson plans that were created specially for mobile kitchen carts. These carts contain all of the necessary supplies to conduct cooking demonstrations in the classroom. I really like the idea of demonstrating how to cook as so many kids aren’t able to experience it at home.

Have you noticed anything new and innovated in the lunch room at your child’s school?


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  1. I taught at an elementary school that had a salad bar like this (private school) and YES so many kids and adults would swamp the salad bar for a variety of toppings and good for you foods.

  2. The composting make me super happy! Even more so if they are putting it into a school garden.

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