How to Make Your Salad Bar Healthy and Popular

Include all Meal Components—making a salad meet the NSLP requirements for a full meal is quite easy with a salad bar! Make sure that the utensils measure the correct serving size of each item. For example one scoop of romaine lettuce equals a half a cup of dark greens and that meets the vegetable requirement for the day.

Offer a Variety of Vegetables & Fruits— The Department of Defense (DoD) Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program allows schools to use USDA Foods entitlement commodity dollars to buy fresh produce. This is an excellent option for stocking a salad bar because it costs the cafeteria nothing and allows for a great variety of options.

Each district designates how much of their commodity dollars will be used towards the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program each year. Kathy increased the amount of funds used for fruits and vegetables because of their popularity. There are usually about 75-90 items to choose from for the program, some of which are seasonal items like melon and grapes. There are also at least five varieties of apples and you can get them pre-sliced too. There is also a variety of greens offered so because iceberg lettuce has no nutritional value, you can instead select romaine or spinach.

Adding in new items is a great way to get kids to try new food and to see which foods they prefer. Beets are one item that Kathy has had success introducing to the students. Interestingly, she also noted that kids are more fond of putting cold peas on their salads than they are of selecting cooked peas as a side!  Offering new items is key, it shows the students that the foods are fresh and they won’t get bored with the same-old-thing. You may be surprised what students will try and enjoy!

Another bonus of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program is that local farmers can apply for a contract with the DoD and supply fresh local fares! You can buy the local items and highlight them on the menu as farm-to-school items.

Protein—Commodity diced chicken is easy and inexpensive because it comes off of entitlement dollars. Shredded cheddar cheese is also government issued and it is reduced sodium and reduced fat. Another protein option is commodity beans, which can actually meet the vegetable or the protein requirement depending on what is needed. Some other popular protein rich items are garbanzo beans, edamame, cottage cheese, and yogurt.

Additional Items—The whole grain component can also be offered at the salad bar to meet reimbursable meal requirements. While most items can be purchased with commodity dollars, Kathy recommends adding in some other items as well, such as nuts, seeds and raisins. For salad dressing, Kathy recommends using small cups that hold one ounce of dressing and offering low or reduced calorie or low fat options.

Designate a Salad Bar Monitor – At Chisago Schools, the salad bar is located after the register, therefore it is required to designate one cafeteria staff member to monitor the salad bar to ensure that students are taking all of the components of a well-balanced, reimbursable meal. With this stipulation, the state department gave the district an exemption allowing them to get their salad after checking out at the register. Kathy notes that this stipulation has not been a hassle because there needs to be someone monitoring the bar to replenish foods, and ensure safety and sanitation anyway.

Since the introduction of salad bars in Chisago Lakes’ middle and intermediate schools lunchrooms, there has been an increase in participation that Kathy feels is partly because students are now offered a fresh alternative to the main entrees. Instead of skipping lunch on days when they don’t like the main course, they are able to build their own protein and nutrient rich salad. The salad bars have also brought in revenue to the cafeterias, teachers and other adults in the schools systems have begun buying lunch and have complemented the salad bar on its freshness and healthfulness.

In short, adding a salad bar to your school can increase participation and customer satisfaction, among students and school faculty and staff. Furthermore, it is easy and affordable to do! If you have questions about adding a salad bar to your school, ask an expert!


Kathy Burrill, Chisago Lakes Schools

Katherine Baildon, Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs

For More Information

Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program

Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools—Get a Salad Bar

National School Lunch Program Factsheets