You’ve heard me sing the praises of bringing music into your school cafeteria, or holding a menu item election in order to increase participation in your school nutrition program. But Boulder Valley School District is raising the bar even higher to encourage student involvement – by hosting an ‘Iron Chef’-style competition.

Students Compete Iron Chef-style to Boost Program Participation

BVSD Iron Chef Competition

The rules of the competition are relatively simple: participating students must work in teams to create an entrée in 90 minutes. According to an article from the Daily Camera, the entrée must fit the year’s theme, please the judges’ palates, meet the USDA nutritional guidelines and cost no more than $1.25 per plate.

This year’s theme was “a chicken dish from a specific nationality or ethnicity”, and submissions included “Greek chicken nachos with garbanzos and feta, chicken pot pie in phyllo pastry and Moroccan chicken.” This year, middle schoolers Albin Halquist and Kaitek Johnston, won the competition with their rendition of chicken piccata – a “crispy, lemony chicken with pasta and garlic broccoli.”

This competition, which has been a tradition at BVSD for seven years running, is well-received by the students.

“We love cooking,” seventh grader Ross Biggerstaff said. “It’s fun to see how much other people like what you made.”

Cameron Heintz and Logan Ruch, now sophomores in the Boulder school system, won the competition three years in a row as middle schoolers. This year, they were asked to return as judges.

“We loved doing this in middle school,” Ruch told the Daily Camera. “Boulder is a foodie town. Kids here know what good food tastes like.”

Judges not only taste the food and give ratings, but also ask the “chefs” questions about ingredients and techniques – just like in the real Iron Chef competitions. The judges then pick a winning dish, and the creators earn money for their schools – and, as noted in the article, “a potential spot on their school lunch menu.”

Why This Competition is Successful

  • Increased Participation/Student Involvement – An Iron Chef-style competition gives students an incentive for getting involved in their school nutrition program. What student doesn’t love to win? And if these students know their own creation – or the creation of their friend or classmate – will be served in the cafeteria, they’re likely to buy lunch that day…then keep coming back! And if your students create the winning plate, they could earn money for your operations. It’s a win-win!
  • Excitement – Competitions are always exciting! By encouraging students to participate in this competition, you’re getting them, their teachers and their families excited. And excitement will, in turn, drive participation even more.
  • New Menu Items – If you’re serving the same food to your students every other week, they may grow tired of the monotony. By holding an Iron Chef competition, the winning dish can join the menu line-up, giving your students a new option. And since the students are coming up with the recipes and instructions, all you’ll need to do is purchase the necessary ingredients and make it! You could even invite the winner to help make the dish the first time it is served for an added incentive.
  • Talent Show – Some students are good at singing, or dancing, or playing an instrument. Other students excel in the kitchen. A competition like this one gives the culinary artists of your school a chance to shine and show off their talent.
  • Lessons Learned – Since student submissions must meet certain financial and dietary guidelines, they’re actively learning important lessons about nutrition and budgeting. As the article pointed out, an Iron Chef competition educates parents and students “about the district’s challenges and limitations”. As an added lesson, you’re teaching students how to make healthy choices and cook, with supervision, for themselves. Essentially, you’re proving to the students that if their peers can create delicious, healthy dishes, so can they.

How You Can Get Started

Before you start planning an Iron Chef competition for your program, make sure such a competition is feasible district-wide so that all schools can compete against one another. If not, you could just make it a school-wide competition, with the permission of your administrators.

When you’ve gotten the “thumbs up” from administration, the next order of business is to pick a theme for the dish. Is there a certain meat entrée you want to switch out on the menu? Or do you have a tired side dish on the breakfast menu? What about a new low-sugar dessert option?

When you’ve picked the theme, you’ll need to spell out the guidelines. Make sure to determine how the contest will be set up; can individuals compete, or do they have to compete in teams? If they work in teams, how many students per team? You should also clearly spell out the nutritional guidelines, amount of time students may spend working on their creation, and how much each dish can cost per plate.

You’ll also need to select some judges for the final competition. It’s a good idea to choose a variety of judges – teachers, school nutrition staff, students and administrators. Let them know that they will be required to score the dishes and offer feedback to the participants.

The final steps in this process are creating hype for the big day – send notes home with children, put advertisements or posters around the school, promote the competition on social media – and holding the competition! When you’ve selected the winning dish, you have to hold true to your word and begin implementing this dish into your menu. The dish can make an appearance on the menu once a month or even more frequently, depending on your program. Be sure to advertise that this menu item is the Iron Chef competition’s winning dish, and give credit to the creator(s).

Are You Ready?

Does an Iron Chef-style competition sound like a fun idea to boost participation in your school nutrition program? Do you think students would actually participate? Has your school ever tried to hold a competition like this before? Leave your thoughts in the comment box below!