If a chicken nugget is healthy, but students don’t know that, does it still taste good? Absolutely, if today’s school lunches are any indication. Foodservice suppliers are tinkering with product formulations to offer more nutritious products to students, without them being able to detect any changes.

Recent legislation hopes to accelerate this trend toward healthier meal options. And foodservice suppliers of meat and poultry products stand to benefit from its increased emphasis on more lean protein and breakfast for children.

By law, school meals are currently required to be portion-controlled with age-appropriate portions, says Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson, School Nutrition Association, based in National Harbor, Md., which represents professionals who prepare, serve and plan school meals.

“Strict federal guidelines exist regarding the portions dished out,” she says. “Also, school meals are already required to limit fat, and that has encouraged school nutrition directors to serve more lean meats.”

This fall, Congress is expected to approve the $4.5 billion childhood nutrition act, passed as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in the Senate in August, which is the largest non-inflationary increase in funding for child-nutrition programs since 1973.

The legislation would improve the nutritional quality of school meals by creating nutrition standards for all foods sold on school premises, including vending machines.

It will also increase children’s access to school nutrition programs by raising the federal reimbursement rate per meal by about six cents (and to schools meeting the Institute of Medicine’s dietary suggestions of more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein and less dairy, sodium and fats), and increasing the number of eligible children for free or reduced-cost meals and offering meals with after-school snack programs.

Currently, more than 31 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program and more than 11 million qualify for the National School Breakfast Program.

First Lady Michelle Obama also launched the “Chefs Move to Schools” program this year, run through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to help make these new healthier meals taste, well, tasty.

The program pairs chefs with interested local schools to create healthy meals that meet the schools’ dietary guidelines and budgets, while teaching young people about nutrition and making healthy choices.

Reformulating classics
As moms and dads know all too well, it is always a challenge to provide cost-effective, nutritious foods that finicky, change-averse students will accept, and many school nutrition directors and foodservice operators grapple with this issue, as well.

School nutrition directors start the process with careful menu planning and writing of food specifications that meet the nutrition standards required in their states, says Katie Wilson, Ph.D., executive director, National Food Service Management Institute, which provides training and research to improve child-nutrition programs, located at the University of Mississippi, Oxford campus.

“Many manufacturers have reformulated products over the last few years to make healthy, tasty products for schools,” she notes.

The child-nutrition label, or CN label, helps those using a food-based menu-planning system to ensure that the portion meets the requirement for reimbursement. Those directors using nutrient analysis menu planning use the manufacturer’s spec sheet to identify proper meal components.  

Until recently, however, “there was little incentive for manufacturers to make their products healthier, so they didn’t change for about 30 to 40 years,” says Craig “Skip” Julius, director of innovation at Cincinnati-based Pierre Foods, who attended Mrs. Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools launch this summer at the White House. “Now there is more political pressure to change them.”

He notes that some manufacturers have been slow to embrace healthier food options because it’s human nature to be resistant to change, or they may lack the technological expertise to meet healthier standards at the same price. Furthermore, Congress hasn’t meaningfully increased its funding to schools in decades, so school districts just don’t have the resources to pay for healthier, more expensive foods.

“As an industry we really haven’t tried to understand the flavor dynamics of children’s food preferences,” he says. “Manufacturers have generally used the same flavor systems as in adult products and simply used them in smaller portions. That’s a mistake … or at least a lost opportunity. The science of understanding what drives kids’ food choices is not widely understood.”

In addition, the customers (i.e. students) are a pretty habitual bunch, content to eat the same foods over and over again.

“So, if you change the flavor profile, they will notice — even subconsciously — and won’t like it,” he says. “It is critical to really understand flavor science when changing nutritional profiles so they don’t notice or, alternatively, to create a new product that doesn’t have a previous benchmark to them.”

Moreover, the CN products supplied by school-foodservice manufacturers have to compete with products served in restaurants and at home, outside of the school environment. To compete with these products, in order to meet school-foodservice nutrition and cost criteria, school foodservice manufacturers strive to make their products taste just as good using alternative flavor enhancements that comply with CN nutrition guidelines, says Everett Kuglar, director of school foodservice, Pilgrim’s Pride/Gold Kist Farms.   

Embracing healthier options
Popular meats for school meals are still chicken and turkey because they are healthier and less expensive than beef, pork and seafood, says Renee Zonka, managing director and associate dean, The School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College, based in Chicago.

“Manufacturers are meeting schools’ demand for more whole-muscle items while they rethink the process of lessening fat and breading,” she says.

Also, foodservice operators are seeing a trend where some schools are moving toward more minimally processed products, such as whole-muscle fajita strips or diced chicken, which can be used in a multitude of menu applications such as roasted chicken salads, says Kuglar.

Chicken nuggets, for one, have been reformulated by manufacturers to be made with only breast meat and whole-grain breading, and to be prepared in the oven, not deep-fried, says Wilson.

“Popular items can change based on regions of the country, but chicken nuggets still seem to be the most popular overall,” she notes.

She points out that many school districts are also using bone-in chicken, reducing fat in hamburger patties by using leaner meat with cherries or applesauce in them, and serving more unbreaded products. 

In an effort to reduce food and storage cost, many school systems are also using the same product from manufacturers in multiple menu applications, such as popcorn chicken by itself, then served with orange sauce as an oriental offering, and as part of a rice bowl, says Kuglar.

Products with an ethnic flair, particularly of Latin or Oriental origin, are also very popular, he notes.

Food is made appealing to students with food presentation and marketing, such as using colors and flavors with creative names and making food as interactive as possible.

“For instance, action stations give students a choice of customizing their meals, particularly if they’re one-bowl meals — from mashed-potato bowls with chicken bites to rice bowls with teriyaki chicken or beef to pasta bowls with colorful vegetables and chunks of savory, flavorful protein,” says Zonka.

Also, more schools are using contests to involve their students in developing menus, she says.

The School Nutrition Association is working closely with students to conduct taste tests of new healthy formulations, such as favorites made more nutritious like nuggets, turkey in pizza and whole grains in entrees, at the district level. “We do everything we can to balance nutrition and taste,” says Pratt-Heavner.

Committing to a healthier lifestyle
Passage of the childhood nutrition bill will help accelerate the trend toward healthier food preparation, but it will still take at least 10 years to change a generation, says Julius.

“It’s like trying to turn a big ship around,” he says. “We will keep pushing to make it turn and then it will finally take off. We need a long-term commitment both as an industry and society to be constructive.”

Like many other school-nutrition experts, he says he would like to see a mandated breakfast program available, whether from a cart or kiosk, that would be available for free to every student.

“Then, children could get the day started on the right foot with nutritionally sound fuel to learn better. And they should have less of a reason to crave that mid-morning junk-food snack,” he says.

Kuglar agrees that more breakfast programs will be on the horizon, and points to more involvement from students and parents alike.

“Students will embrace healthier, more interesting and exciting meals, and there will be better educational programs on nutrition for students and parents,” he says.

In addition, in some school-foodservice programs, there is a trend toward more local procurement, especially for fresh fruits and vegetables as well as a movement toward near scratch cooking on some items.

“It will not be on all items or all meals, but school nutrition directors are making serious attempts to achieve this in programs because many students like the products, the food is less processed and it can provide life lessons for students that not everything comes pre-cooked,” notes Kuglar.

Zonka agrees, and says that she thinks we will begin to see families cooking and eating together again, thanks to the nutrition education students will be getting at school.

“There was a time when really good food was made from scratch in schools and home, and I anticipate and look forward to a full-circle return to this,” she says. “Families will make an effort to eat together and enjoy the sociability of food.”

Also, she says she is already seeing more interest among faculty to support the mission of feeding the children.

“The faculty are writing grants for money to support the needs of educational materials and planting materials to educate the students on sustainability and nutrition,” she says.

Balancing nutrition with convenience
Retailers are offering budget-minded consumers a variety of convenient, economical, portion-controlled products.

The lagging economy, it seems, is no match for growing waistbands. Consumers are continuing their efforts to cut calories by embracing portion-controlled products in the meat and deli departments, specifically low-, no- or reduced-calorie products.

According to Mintel International’s December 2009 “Lunch Meat — US” report, the lunchmeat category, at least, has maintained a modest 9 percent growth from 2004 to 2009, with average yearly growth of 1.8 percent. But in 2009, lunchmeat/cold cut usage increased for the first time in years, noted the Chicago-based global market-research firm, most likely due to budget-conscious Americans packing their lunches and eating at home more often.

In addition, this fall’s upcoming International Dairy Deli Bakery Association’s (IDDBA) annual trends book, “What’s in Store 2011,” reports that 66 percent of survey respondents are making or have made a serious effort to decrease calories this year, which is similar to previous, more prosperous years: 67 percent in 2004, 66 percent in 1999 and 72 percent in 1994.

“What’s in Store” also indicates that low/no/reduced calorie product introductions for 2010 will be about on par with 2009’s, according to Mintel data (although the report doesn’t have data on meat products specifically). The year 2008 remains the high-water mark for low-, no- or reduced-calorie product introductions, notes Alan Hiebert, education information specialist, IDDBA, based in Madison, Wis.

However, approximately half of respondents said their primary supermarket delis do not offer a good selection of low-calorie products, he says.

“In my mind, at least a few of those delis probably do offer low-calorie products, but don’t do a good job of telling their customers what ‘low-calorie’ products are,” he says. “Almost any product can be considered ‘low-calorie’ if the portion size is small enough, but consumers need help determining what a portion is.”

Restaurants, particularly fast-food and quick-service chains, across the United States are introducing calorie-controlled meals now.

“Consumers may be more inclined to embrace portion-controlled meals from their supermarkets than they will with meat products,” says Hiebert. “It may be difficult for some parents to justify purchasing 10 or 20 portions of lunchmeat for the kids’ lunches each week, even though it may be more economical than purchasing two or three pounds in bulk.”

Merchandising alternative cuts
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) is trying to educate retailers and consumers alike about leaner cuts and smaller protein portions with its Beef Alternative Merchandising (BAM) program, which instructs retailers on a leaner cutting method to create smaller, one-inch thick filets and 11⁄2- to 21⁄2-pound roasts ideally with top sirloin, rib eye and loin subprimals. The project is funded by The Beef Checkoff Program, and is the result of extensive testing throughout 2008 with consumer surveys and focus groups revealing an enthusiastic response to this alternative merchandising technique.

The BAM project also assists retailers with acting on consumer suggestions, such as showcasing new cuts as a “collection,” providing recipes and cooking tips and including seasoning packets in the packages.

“Portion control is a trend that will stay in the meat case as consumers become more health-conscious,” says Trevor Amen, marketing manager, NCBA, based in Centennial, Colo.

By using middle meat cuts, retailers can provide consumers with a smaller product weight and less fat, but a desirable level of thickness at a lower price point, which fits into consumers’ current frugal mindset, he says.

“Now consumers can enjoy steak any day of the week,” he says.

Flavor and convenience
Consumer packaged goods manufacturers have found that some consumers are willing to pay more per ounce for a smaller package if it helps them control portion size, says Hiebert, due to its convenience and perceived health factor.

“In my opinion, supermarket delis may have an opportunity to sell higher-priced, boldly flavored meats in smaller quantities to their customers who are interested in lowering their calories,” he says.

Pre-portioned meats and poultry in the meat department also offer an easy way for consumers to balance nutrition with the added convenience of a ready meal.

Says Carrie Johnston, Fast Fixin’ brand manager, Advance Brands: “More and more ‘pre-portioned’ products are being offered in packaging with consumer-friendly preparation,” such as snacks and handheld products, pre-made meals with easy prep, and kits containing two portions to family size have definitely grown.

The pre-portioned products that have been hurt are those that haven’t made the grade in convenience and value. Packaging that is user-friendly and appealing, such as being portable or including cook-in containers, is also driving consumer acceptance.

“Even with the economy turning around slightly, consumers seem to be maintaining a philosophy of eating at home more and ‘brown-bagging’ it at the office,” she says. “Pre-portioned meals give them options they can feel good about.”

Bulk saves money
The money-conscious food consumer is certainly looking for the best deal possible, and often times the big-box stores will offer the greatest savings: buy in bulk and save money, notes Jarrod Sutton, assistant vice president, channel marketing, National Pork Board, based in Des Moines, Iowa.

“The warehouse/club stores have become very savvy in how they are merchandising fresh meats to their members,” he says. “Yes, they are larger packs, but most of the packages are individual unit packs ‘times three,’ meaning each meat item is individually wrapped with a serrated edge allowing for easy tear away.”

Individually quick-frozen (IQF) chicken breasts are also still popular because of their convenience and price, he says. The success of the IQF chicken breasts has prompted manufacturers to test the concept with other proteins. For example, he says, Costco pre-portions their pork sirloin tip roasts two to a pack. Also, Smithfield is selling a line of pre-portioned, exact weight pork loin filets and pork tenderloins.

“The advantage to pre-portioned meats is controlling loss by way of shrink,” says Sutton. “This is a tremendous advantage to retailers, so companies need to focus on that as a selling point.”

Indeed, pre-portioned meats will continue to evolve because of less available store labor, attractive pricing due to increased demand and convenience.

“Many of the meat department personnel are not trained butchers as they once were,” he says. “Today they have a basic knowledge of meat, but must rely heavily on manufacturers and suppliers to provide products that are pre-portioned, pre-cut and potentially even pre-marked for sale.”

Back to school: by the numbers
The School Nutrition Association, based in National Harbor, Md., recently released its “Back to School Trends Survey,” which revealed that, despite rising costs, schools are serving more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products, and reducing added sodium and sugar. Here are some other findings:

63 percent of districts with a la carte services are implementing nutrition standards

65 percent are limiting the size and/or weight of their a la carte food and beverage offerings

67 percent of districts with vending services are increasing the availability of healthier beverages in vending machines

65 percent anticipate that the federal reimbursement for free and reduced price meals served under the National School Lunch Program will fail to cover the cost of producing the meals

83.5 percent of districts report increases in the number of free and reduced price participation in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program in the 2009/2010 school year