What if I told you that you could have the ability to read your students’ minds? You would probably think I am either a liar or simply insane, but lucky for you – neither apply! School nutrition professionals just like yourself partake in a strategy that allows them to understand which types of foods their student’s like and don’t like before it ever hits the cafeteria. This has become possible through the process of organized taste tests. Typically seen throughout the school year, many schools across the nation are implementing taste tests with groups of students to allow them to sample potential meal offerings.

“[Taste tests] are usually conducted with new products or recipes, or a comparison between a current product and an alternative.” – said Lindsey Bradley, Marketing Specialist at Austin ISD

Taste-testing is valuable to your operations for many reasons, and can be executed in a variety of ways to best suit the needs of your school district.

Getting Started

One of the first things to consider when planning a taste-testing strategy is why you are doing it in the first place. Optimally, your school district should have a long-term mindset to have the most successful taste testing program. As a school nutrition professional, your goal is to encourage and help students maintain a healthy lifestyle. With a popular taste-testing program attaining this goal can become a lot easier for you and your staff. After you have determined the goal outcome of the taste test, then it’s time to plan the processes necessary to execute proper sampling of the food. This includes deciding which food will be sampled, where and when it will be sampled, and how many sites and students will test the products.

Which taste test is right for you?

The key factor for success for your school district’s taste test is ensuring that your methods fit well for your district and schools. For example, Spring ISD (TX) Child Nutrition Services chooses to host taste tests in a focus group environment.

“They focus on three schools a week for a time period of 4-5 weeks and with each focus group testing 25 students at a time,” according to Jennifer Fasano, MS, RDN, Dietician at Spring ISD. “That way, they will have around 75 opinions from their sites in the first week.”

There is no one “perfect” way to organize a taste test. You can manipulate the logistics of this program in a way that fits your school’s structure, schedule and operations. One of the most common ways that school districts approach taste tests is with student focus groups outside of the regular lunch periods. A selected group of students (usually a classroom at a time) is invited to participate and evaluate potential menu offerings. Austin ISD, for example, utilizes a student evaluation form to collect feedback on taste test items. This form invites students to

“rate the products on look, aroma, texture, taste, whether they would choose to eat it, and a place for additional comments”, according to Lindsey Bradley.

After the test concludes, the evaluations are collected and the data is consolidated. Based on the scoring system, school districts then use this information to determine which product or products deserve a spot on the menu. There are plenty of other strategies to consider when planning and executing your taste test program:

  • Include sample food as part of the regular cafeteria line. This allows easy integration at sites that might have limitations on organizing focus groups outside of serving hours

  • Alternative testing times. You can implement your tests at times other than during/after the regular lunch period. For example, you can utilize time in the morning (think Breakfast in the Classroom, Breakfast After the Bell, morning breaks) in order to accommodate schedules at particular sites.

  • Distribute on the go. Instead of having a set table for testing, you can try passing out the food options throughout the cafeteria during breakfast or lunch and collecting the feedback once the period is over.

  • Think outside the cafeteria. One way to really reinforce the message of healthy eating everywhere is to plan taste tests in unique places at the site. You can try setting up in a high traffic hallway or an auditorium, to show students that healthy eating can be incorporated at any time.

Make it exciting!

The glory of providing taste tests to your students is that inherently they are going to enjoy eating free food. There shouldn’t be much convincing involved to have the students enjoy the process. Students also enjoy being involved in the menu planning process, as I learned from a group of students engaging in a taste test at Spring ISD.

“We really appreciate being able to have our voice be heard when it comes to what is being served in our cafeteria”, one student said.

Another student commented that it’s “always exciting when they get chosen to participate in the taste test.”

As we all know, eating is very exciting on its own. If you make it a point to enhance the taste-testing experience in any way possible, however, your results are likely to improve. You will have increased participation, and with that comes a larger sample size for more accurate results. There are always options to consider to make the taste test unique and even more enjoyable. You can place signs and posters in the cafeteria to grab the attention of potentially interested students, or advertise the taste test on your social media accounts to generate a buzz. Additionally, you can use balloons and other decorations to isolate the testing area to allow it to stand out in a positive way. Even adding music will enhance the testing environment in such a way that will stand out to the students and make them remember the experience even more.

Re-visit your goal

It is clear that organized taste tests are valuable in determining how potential menu offerings will fare at your sites. Taste tests are also a perfect opportunity to reinforce the message of healthy eating to your students. It’s important to make a conscious effort to make the students your focus when planning your strategy. A few examples to assist in this include providing handouts as takeaway items. These handouts should be colorful and easy-to-read, and provide a nutritional message regarding the food they tested. You could also consider providing stickers, or any fun promotional material (think an “I tried it!” sticker, especially for younger students) that would reinforce the message of a healthy lifestyle, and trying new foods. With a properly planned taste testing-program, not only will your staff be able to “read the minds” of your students, you will also be able to help your school district maintain the highest level of nutritional standards possible.

Does your school district have a taste-testing strategy? If so, what has gone well? What are some challenges you have faced? Let us know in the comments section below!