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When School Lunch is Nutritious, Colorful, and Delicious

school lunchImagine a world where kids head to lunch at their school cafeteria and eat a full range of produce from arugula to zucchini. A school lunch fantasy land? Not in the world of School Nutrition Plus, one of the country’s most cutting-edge school food companies, where an array of colorful fruits and vegetables have the starring role at every meal.

school lunchLed by registered dietitian Emily Burson and Executive Chef Brandon Neumen, the company aims to improve the taste and nutritional quality of school lunches through from-scratch cooking. Their boutique-style service now serves more than 20,000 meals every day, including breakfast, lunch, snacks, and supper.

We recently had a chance to meet the team behind School Nutrition Plus and tour their kitchen facility, while celebrating the launch of their new cookbook, “A Chef Walks Into a Cafeteria.” This book does what most of us aspire to do every day – it offers simple, easy to cook, wholesome, and appealing family-oriented foods – and it does it extremely well.

The popular Epic Green Smoothie, for instance, is creamy and sweet and it gets its bright green color from both spinach and cucumber. The Chicken Chow Mein features no fewer than eight kinds of vegetables. And the Quinoa Cranberry-Almond Granola (pictured below) gets its distinctive crunch from toasted grains of quinoa.

school lunch

But probably the most distinctive school lunch item created by School Nutrition Plus is the Alphabet Produce Train that features produce for every letter of the alphabet. Going down the line, you have Arugula, Blackberry, Cucumber, and Dill Salad; Edamame; Fennel, Grape, and Honeydew Salad; Iceberg, Jicama, Kale, Lemon Vinaigrette, and Mushroom Salad; Napa Cabbage and Orange Salad; Pomegranate, Quinoa, and Raisin Salad; Strawberry-Tomatillo Salsa (and chips); Urad Bean, Vidialia Onion Dressing, Watercress, Yam, and Zucchini Salad; and Xigua (Chinese for watermelon).

school lunch

To make the Urad Bean, Vidalia Onion, Watercress, Yam, and Zucchini salad (UVWYZ salad for short), you start with urad beans, which are tiny black beans native to India that look kind of like lentils. In fact, if you don’t have urad beans on hand,  black lentils are an easy substitute.

Urad Bean, Vidalia Onion Dressing, Watercress, Yam, and Zucchini Salad
Recipe type: Salad
Cuisine: American
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 4 servings
A hearty bean salad that spells out the U-V-W-Y-Z in an alphabet produce sampling. Adapted from A Chef Walks Into a Cafeteria by Emily Burson and Brandon Neumen.
  • 2 cups cubed peeled yam (or sweet potato)
  • 4 tsp. canola oil, divided
  • 2 cups cubed zucchini
  • 1 cup urad beans (or black lentils)
  • ¾ cup watercress
  • For the dressing:
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ cup fresh lemon juice
  • 2 T. Dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • Dash of black pepper
  • ½ Vidalia or other sweet onion, peeled
  • ⅔ cup vegetable oil
  1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Combine the yams with 2 tsp. oil on a large baking sheet; spread in a single layer. Bake for 12 minutes. Stir and push yams to one end of the baking sheet. Combine zucchini and 2 tsp. oil in a bowl; arrange in a single layer on baking sheet on side opposite yams. Roast the vegetables for 8 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, place the beans in a large saucepan; cover with water 2 inches above the beans. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, partially cover, and simmer 20 minutes or until just tender. Drain.
  3. Make the dressing: Put all of the dressing ingredients except the oil into a food processor. Process until the onion is minced; slowly blend in the oil. Refrigerate for 20 minutes.
  4. Toss all of the ingredients together with the dressing. Chill until ready to serve.

school lunch

This salad is extremely satisfying and the flavors are mild enough that it should have broad appeal. It also has just enough “heft” that you could easily enjoy it as a vegan or vegetarian main course.

The salad is also just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, in terms of the creative, kid-friendly ideas the book as to offer. And whether you’re in charge of school lunches for just one kid, or for a whole school, it’s definitely worth a a read. And now the question is: Can more schools cook this way, and will more kids eat this way? Let’s hope the inspiration continues to spread.

Blogger disclosure: I did not receive compensation for this post. All opinions expressed are my own. Jolly Tomato is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

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