Introducing a new food into your child nutrition program can be a gamble. Maybe you’ll add a new food or dish to your serving line and the students will love it! Or…maybe they won’t touch it. If the students reject the new food, you’ll have learned by trial and error, but you’ll have wasted money, time, and effort in the process. One of the best ways to find out if introducing new food to your program is a good idea is by performing taste tests.

Why It Works

Many schools employ taste tests to have students sample foods they wish to introduce to the menu, and to have the students give their honest opinions. Taste tests are especially helpful for figuring out which farm-to-school foods will be best received by your students, or if students might enjoy any out-of-the-ordinary foods or dishes you’d like to add to the menu.

Firstly, a taste test encourages students to try new foods. Taste tests can create an environment that is curious about food, setting students up to be open-minded when it comes to exploring different culinary creations in the future. Secondly, if the students enjoy the food they sampled in the taste test, they’ll be more likely to participate in your child nutrition program.

How to Get Started

Successfully hosting a taste test in your child nutrition program requires careful planning. It’s important to decide what foods or dishes you will be sampling first. Research which farm-fresh or unfamiliar foods have fared well in other child nutrition programs, what recipes were used, and what kinds of ingredients are used (avoiding foods that could contain allergens, if possible). Also, try to figure out how much the food or dish would cost to purchase, prepare and serve, to ensure you are staying within your budget.

Don’t forget to consider that you have the proper materials and volunteers needed to successfully launch the taste test. The Edible Schoolyard suggests preparing approximately 20 pounds of food to provide enough samples for a school of 300 students, but keep in mind that not all students will take the samples. Other necessary materials are probably already present in your cafeteria – facilities to clean, prep, and cook the food, rubber gloves to handle the samples, and a table or tray on which to serve up the samples.

It may be helpful to have at least five volunteers manning the taste test. One person to prepare the samples, and two pairs of two to hand out the samples and gather feedback from the students. You can position a taste test table at the beginning or end of the regular serving line, so students may add the taste test sample to their trays. You could also take the samples on a tray to the students at their tables or in their classrooms. If you think that peers could help to encourage other students to participate in the taste test, you could even consider recruiting student volunteers. It depends on what works best for you, your program, and your volunteers.

It’s Go-Time!

Prepare the sample food or dish the day before or the morning of the taste test. When it’s go-time, have all volunteers in position and ready to begin serving. Be sure to brief volunteers about their responsibilities, and encourage them to be very friendly and encouraging of the students to get them to participate in the taste test. If using a taste test table, it’s a good idea to create some kind of visually appealing signage to help students understand what you are doing.

Even if the food is something the students wouldn’t normally order from the menu at a restaurant, most students won’t turn down a free sample. And, to reward the students even further for taking part in your taste test, they can have something like a sticker. This little prize, which is especially well-received by younger students, reminds them of the fun activity in which they participated, and can serve as a motivating factor for other students to sample the food from the taste test.

Recording and Analyzing the Data

After the samples have been tested, record the data and determine if introducing the food to your program would be a financially responsible decision. Inviting the students to physically cast their vote is a great way to help them feel involved in the process of bringing new foods into the cafeteria. You can have the students place stickers on a poster to signify their vote, or have them write their name on a slip of paper and insert it into a “yes” or “no” ballot box. Be sure to use phrasing that is positive – think “I tried it and liked it!” and “No, it’s not for me.” You could also use stick figures or emojis to label the ballot boxes. If deploying the taste test in a high school where stickers may be too “kid-ish”, pass out surveys for the students to turn back in. You can ask them if they liked the sample food, why or why not, and what other foods they would like to see served in the cafeteria.

Review the collected data to determine whether adding this food or dish (or some variation of it) would be well-received in your program. After recounting the votes, discuss the results of the taste test with your child nutrition program to begin thinking about the logistics of serving this food. Edible Schoolyard even suggests sending out results and fact sheets to the parents, principals, and food service staff. You can also begin thinking of creative ways to market this food or dish to your students in the future – through posters and flyers, digital signage or online menus, social media, etc.

Tell Us About Your Experience!

Have you ever performed a taste test in your child nutrition program? Which food or dish did you introduce to your students, and how was it received? What lessons did you learn from hosting a taste test? Do you have any advice for our readers? Let us know!