How to Plan a School Menu: Tips of the Trade

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Making a school menu can be a daunting task. Many details must be considered when planning a school menu. What are a few you can think of immediately? Here are some tips of the trade from us to you.

Step 1: Use menu planning software. It makes the process so much easier to analyze nutrients and monitor allergens.  Many districts contract with Menu Planning software companies yearly. The software makes it easy for the menu planner to draft, analyze, finalize, and export monthly menus to the school sites.

Some companies to compare if you don’t have something currently:

  • Heartland School Solutions
  • Horizon
  • Culinary Suite
  • squaremeals.org (The Texas Department of Agriculture offers free access)

 Step 2: Have the Federal reimbursable meal pattern charts at your desk to refer to.

Breakfast: https://www.fns.usda.gov/sbp/meal-pattern-chart

Lunch: https://www.fns.usda.gov/nslp/national-school-lunch-program-meal-pattern-chart

Step 3: Know what processed and unprocessed commodities that your district is going to use and when they will be delivered.

Step 4: Create a Cycle Menu. “A cycle menu is a series of menus repeated over a specific period, such as four weeks. The menu is different each day during the cycle. And, at the end of the cycle, the menu is repeated.” (1)

Advantages of a Cycle Menu:

  • Saves time
  • Allows the menu planner to offer a variety of menu items
  • Controls food costs

I find it easier to start building a cycle with the main dishes first, then work through the sides. Try to include a different main dish for each day of the week. Use different Meat/Meat Alternates on back-to-back days. For example, Beef Vegetable Soup on Monday, Fish Sticks on Tuesday, Chicken and Rice on Wednesday, Hamburgers on Thursday, and Pizza on Friday.

Remember that a cycle can be flexible to accommodate seasonal items, holiday meals, and USDA commodities

Other Things to Keep in Mind:

Include Raw and Cooked Vegetables

What are your delivery days?

How long will fresh fruit and vegetables hold if delivered on certain days and not “menued” immediately?

What is your storage capacity?

How many items must go in the oven on a given day? Don’t overload the day with too many baked or steamed items.

The Social and Health Research Center will be happy to help with this.

Step 5:  Check your cycle menu against the Meal Pattern chart to ensure you have met the sub-group requirements. Check your food costs to ensure that the menu is within your food budget

Step 6: Plug your cycle into the actual school calendar days using your menu planning software; remember to mark the holidays as no meal days.

Step 7: Use feedback from school managers to determine if a menu item is a hit or not. Remove items that you know the kids do not like.