December's School Nutrition Magazine featuring our own Chef Tim!

Go Back to the Future with Scratch Cooking

Learn how your school nutrition operation can provide meals that create a sense of comfort and home.
By Dayle Hayes, MS, RD
It's easy to get hungry when you are interviewing school nutrition professionals about home-style meals and scratch cooking. The food they describe is mouth-watering, even if you have just eaten. Take a moment to envision some of the home-style items served in the operations of directors interviewed for this article: Roasted Root Vegetables. Chicken and Granny Smith Apple Quesadillas. Steamed Chicken and Veggie Bundles. Pumpkin Cranberry Bread. Grass-fed Beef and Bean Burritos with Green Chili and Garden Marinara Sauce (secret ingredient— cherries!). Remember, these are dishes served in school cafeterias!
Interviewees also mentioned menuing spicy pork burritos with tomatillo, garlic chicken and pasta, chicken and dumplings, chicken cordon bleu sandwiches and rice with edamame. Then, there are stews and soups with beans and veggies galore, salads with everything under the sun and home-baked breads and desserts made with whole grains, fresh or dried fruit, nuts and even sweet potatoes. Whew!
With offerings like these, it’s no wonder that scratch cooking is one of the hottest trends in school kitchens across the country. It’s also no wonder that directors receive recipe requests from families in their communities. And it’s no surprise that home-style items frequently sell out on the cafeteria line. Who could have guessed? It turns out that the drive-thru generation actually loves sitting down to real food! Directors in districts big and small, rural and urban all report that switching to a menu mix featuring more scratch items has been a real hit with students.
Valerie Addis, director of food and nutrition services for Missoula County (Mont.) Public Schools, sums up her experience with serving home-style meals to students in her district. ‘“Home-style’ means returning to the foods we associate with family dining. I have found students to be so receptive to home-style meals, whether [they] are in Montana or on the East Coast. Kids do not just want fast foods. They love cooked meals that remind them of those put out by their mothers and grandmothers,” she asserts. Plus, she adds, “Meals that remind us of home can be healthy. Home-style can still incorporate reduced sodium, sugars and fats, and add local foods to the mix for emotionally and physically satisfying foods.”
Different Definitions, Same Direction
Although it’s a national trend growing from coast to coast and from the mountains to the plains, “home-style meals” and “scratch cooking” have slightly different meanings, depending on who is doing the talking! These range from “locally sourced” to “regional specialties” to “anything prepared using an actual recipe.” Following are specific examples of how definitions vary from director to director.
For Timothy Cipriano, executive director of food services for New Haven (Conn.) Public Schools, scratch cooking involves “starting with a product that is as close to the real product as possible and turning it into a finished product. As an example, we purchase locally grown red potatoes for our mashed and roasted potatoes. We make our own ‘hot’ sweet potato chips; we take the sweets and slice them into half-inch slices and roast them to perfection,” he describes.
Not too far away, Patricia Cunningham, supervisor of nutrition services for Seaford (Del.) School District, describes home-style as “any product that is made from scratch and [is] specific to the region. In our region, dumplings, corn (served in the husks), melons, apples, tomatoes and peaches are grown within a 10-mile radius.” Further west, Leo Lesh, SNS, executive director of enterprise management at Denver Public Schools (DPS), explains that scratch cooking involves the use of basic ingredients and familiar components—such as flour, sugar and home-baked bread—to prepare menus.
For Diane Chapeta, child nutrition services director for Chilton & Hilbert (Wis.) Public Schools and director of the Northeast Wisconsin Farm to School Initiative, “Scratch cooking in our district is defined by the raw ingredients incorporated into the recipes. When we designate a menu item as a ‘scratch’ item, it means we have started with as many raw foods as possible.” As examples, she details, “Our chicken club sandwich begins with a raw, boneless, skinless, chicken breast. Our mashed potatoes begin with red potatoes and fresh garlic roasted in our own kitchens. Our chicken stir-fry contains fresh vegetables cut by our staff.”
Shelly Fox, child nutrition supervisor for Edmond (Okla.) Public Schools, started scratch cooking this year at all of her district’s schools. To her this means, “We start with fresh ingredients such as whole muscle uncooked meats and fresh vegetables.” She estimates that 50% of the menu now comes from scratch recipes and notes her intention to increase that percentage in the future.
In Mt. Diablo (Calif.) Unified School District, Director of Food and Nutrition Kathleen Corrigan acknowledges different levels of scratch cooking. She cites Food Network host Sandra Lee’s semi-homemade cooking approach as the one that “works best for us. Some menu items are ‘scratchier,’ such as Caesar salad wraps, chicken bean soft tacos and garlic chicken and pasta. Other menu items are more of a blend, depending on site staffing, such as chicken or veggie chow mein. Last year, we also made sweet potato tarts for Thanksgiving and blueberry tarts in February. We purchased a quality tart crust and used canned sweet potato and frozen USDA blueberries,” she shares.
Slow and Steady
When you ask school nutrition directors how they incorporate more home-style meals and scratch cooking into their programs, it seems inevitable that some “homespun” advice comes to mind. Phrases like “Many hands make light work.” “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” and “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” accurately summarize the advice that school nutrition professionals must keep in mind when incorporating home-style meals into their operation. Directors offer two fundamental pieces of advice. The first is to be committed for the long haul, prepared to make lots of small, incremental changes.
While a few school districts never relinquished the kitchen equipment and staffing patterns of old-school scratch cooking, most districts today are in the process of going “back to the future” to add more home-style meals to the menu mix. For some, that means making an effort to seek out fresher, more locally sourced products. For others, however, it has involved taking bigger leaps in terms of both equipment and staff training. No matter where an individual district falls on the spectrum, universal agreement exists among school nutrition directors that moving from more processed, quick-serve foods to “scratchier” recipes is a journey, not an event.
Patricia Cunningham, in her farming-area district in central Delaware, repeats a simple mantra to her staff, “Give it a try. If it doesn’t work, we’ll regroup, and see where we are going to make it work.” Diane Chapeta, whose rural district is located between Milwaukee and Green Bay, Wis., puts it another way: “Start slowly and be ready to adapt to bumps in the road.” Kathleen Corrigan, just east of San Francisco in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District, agrees in six simple words: “Go slow and don’t give up.”
For large districts, like Denver Public Schools, the process of implementing scratch cooking in 153 schools serving nearly 80,000 students takes a multi-year vision. According to Leo Lesh, the endeavor requires hard work, dedication and the need to sweat the small stuff. “Implementing scratch meals is a whole new way of doing business, not a short-term ‘something nice to do this year’ to show people you are trying to do the right thing,” he emphasizes.
Lesh’s vision is that by the 2012-13 school year, all Denver school kitchens will be producing scratch-cooked meals, using as many local “Colorado Proud” products as possible. Currently, 30 DPS kitchens have implemented regular scratch cooking recipes, and staffers from 27 more schools are completing their “Back to the Future” scratch cooking training.
Sandy Curwood, director of food and nutrition services for the Ventura (Calif.) Unified School District, agrees with Lesh’s gradual rollout approach. “My best advice is to get it going well in a few locations and then let it spread to others.” That said, she admits that it’s a piece of hindsight wisdom: “I wish that I had taken a bit more of my own good advice.”
Back to Class
Curwood and all the other directors quoted in this article also agree with Leo Lesh on the second piece of key advice: Comprehensive, ongoing staff training is essential for any school nutrition program that wants to do more home-style or scratch cooking. “Engage your staff from the very beginning of the process. Let them know that they are integral to the success of the changes, and [express confidence that] they will rise to the occasion,” suggests Curwood. Her team arranged for training conducted by a chef and registered dietitian and held at a nearby upscale facility. Both the setting and the instructors made Curwood’s staff feel special and valued, which in turn made them feel more positive about their school jobs.
Staff education and training related to home-style meal preparation can take many different forms, depending on the location of a district, as well as the availability of resources from community groups, other institutions and even equipment manufacturers. Directors can be quite creative in leveraging existing and potential opportunities to provide culinary training for their staff.
Blodgett ovens are produced in Burlington, Vt., so it made perfect sense to Doug Davis, SNS, director of food service for Burlington (Vt.) Public Schools, to develop a partnership with the famed equipment manufacturer. And what an enthusiastic response he got for his efforts! Blodgett provided extensive training to the Burlington school nutrition team. Initially led by the company’s corporate chef at its headquarters, training also was provided onsite in schools that purchased new ovens and steamers. Davis reports that his staff learned new techniques to match the new equipment, allowing them to really improve their batch cooking skills.
Timothy Cipriano wishes he had implemented a “boot camp” approach to culinary training for department staff right at the beginning of his campaign to make changes. Fortunately, he is able to draw on some high-level resources for the necessary catch-up. “Yale University Dining Services offers our cooks the chance to attend classes with master chefs from the Culinary Institute of America,” he notes. “These classes prepare meals that we are never going to serve [in the cafeteria], but they give our cooks the skills needed to tackle the recipes we [do offer] in our district.”
Liz Aufdenberg, director of foodservice for Jackson (Mo.) R-2 Public Schools, has—by necessity—taken a different tactic during her nine years in her role. She believes that home-style meals require creativity in the kitchen—at home and at school. According to Aufdenberg, “You need a team that isn’t afraid in the kitchen. They need some free rein to experiment, like with their use of leftovers, and to learn by doing.” She also has hired members from the local community who can provide training in various critical culinary skills; for example, a baker who retired from a local bakery offered valuable expertise to the school nutrition team.
The Worth of the Work
Several variations on a single theme emerged as directors discussed the importance of involving and training their staff teams to provide more scratch-prepared meals. “Pride in their work.” “A voice in the process.” “Flexibility to try their ideas.” It turns out that the old homespun advice about many hands making light work certainly applies to the preparation and service of home-style meals in today’s modern school cafeterias.
Wisconsin’s Diane Chapeta sums up the pride that her team feels in its switch to scratch. “It’s the look on a 2nd-grader’s face when they decide they love kohlrabi, or the appreciative smile and nod from a high school student who fills his tray with fresh fruits. It’s knowing some of these students never see the types of fresh fruits and vegetables or entrées and sides we offer every day. It’s a delightful surprise knowing on some level we are making a difference,” she details. SN
Dayle Hayes is a nutrition consultant and speaker based in Billings, Mont. You can reach her at She also maintains a blog ( and the Schools Meals That Rock Facebook page.

Hearty and Heart-Healthy Idaho Potato Stew
YIELD: 10 servings*
PER SERVING: 301 cal., 20 g pro., 48 g carb., 5 g fat, 30 mg chol., 265 mg sod.

  • Potatoes, 1/2-in. cubes—2 lbs. or 5 cups
  • Olive oil—1 Tbsp.
  • Onions, frozen, chopped—2 10-oz. packages
  • Tomatoes, dried, chopped—1/4 cup
  • Chicken broth, low-sodium—46 ozs.
  • Turkey, cooked, shredded—2 cups
  • Vegetable mix, packaged, frozen—3 cups
  • Pepper, ground—as needed


  1. Thaw and chop the vegetables. Set aside.
  2. In a heavy soup pot, heat the olive oil on high and stir in the onions. Cook, stirring occasionally for about 20 minutes or until well browned.
  3. Add the potatoes, dried tomatoes and chicken broth.
  4. Bring the mixture to a boil, cover and let cook for 10 minutes or until all ingredients are tender.
  5. Add the turkey and vegetables to the mixture, return to a boil and cook for 6-8 minutes.
  6. Divide evenly into 10 1 1/2 cup portions and top with freshly ground pepper.

Recipe & recipe analysis: Idaho Potato Commission,
*Note: If this recipe passes the test with a small group of students, adjust the quantities for batch preparation.