Young Chefs Create Student-Favorite Recipes

Sandy Voss, Director of Food and Nutrition Services in MSD15, reviewing a student team’s competition entry.


Stefanie Giannini, Assistant Director of Food & Nutrition Services at Marquardt School District 15 (MSD15) in Glendale Heights, Illinois, shared her perspective as a food service leader using the Smarter Lunchrooms program and how lunchrooms can stay relevant and plugged into student culture. We will be sharing a series of her ideas. This is the first installation of that series.

As a Smarter Lunchrooms Technical Assistance Provider (TAP), partnering with students and/or teachers on lunchroom initiatives can be a great way to increase participation in school lunch and ensure that changes to the lunchroom reflect the interests of the student body. Stefanie Giannini, Assistant Director of Food & Nutrition Services at Marquardt School District 15 (MSD15) in Glendale Heights, Illinois, shared with us one of her school’s most successful student partnership initiatives, which brought in a ton of student engagement and enthusiasm: The Young Chefs program.

The Young Chefs program is a 6-week program in which students are taught basic cooking skills in the school’s commercial kitchen. It was created by Jen Leadaman, a Curriculum Coach and former middle school teacher, and Sandy Voss, Director of Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) in the district. Students meet weekly after school. Lesson topics have included food safety, knife skills, recipe reading, emulsions, roux, beans, homemade ice cream, and eggs. (Each session’s curriculum is a bit different.)

In addition to the normal program curriculum, special events and contests are hosted each year for Young Chefs to participate in. The most successful competition yet was all about salads: the young chefs worked solo or in teams to create appealing, fresh new salad recipes. While they were given standard parameters to align with National School Lunch Program (NSLP) nutritional guidelines, such as the presence of a meat/meat alternate component as well as a grain, students for the most part had free reign regarding their compositions. Once the recipes were submitted, the superintendent, principals, Food and Nutrition Services staff, and student council were brought into the picture. The Young Chefs prepared each recipe; then, the invited judges tasted the entries and voted on their favorites. It turns out that students have a taste for fruit with tajin (a chili-lime seasoning)—something Stefanie says she would have never thought of! The winning salad was a fruit and tajin salad with yogurt and granola, and to this day is the #1 best-selling salad at the school.

The school has had several more contests, including a sandwich competition. The winning submission was the student-named “California Dream Sub,” which consists of half a spicy chicken breast, half a plain chicken breast, vegetables, and cheese. What a creative flavor profile! This experience demonstrated how effective it is to partner with students and ask what they want to eat. After all, they are the customers, and giving them the opportunity to help design their menu ensures that it reflects their tastes and that menu items will be successful.

Furthermore, a chef hat icon is then placed next to each Young Chefs item on the menu. This recognizes students for their accomplishments and increases student interest in the trendy new dishes, which increase sales.

The Young Chefs program is a wonderful example of a lunchroom food services team collaborating with students, teachers, and other members of their school community to boost students’ interest in menu items, foster a sense of community, and increase participation in the lunch program. For inspiration on Young Chefs recipes that might be popular among students in your own school, or for eye-catching promotional displays, check out the pictures below from Stefanie’s school district.


A PDF version of this article can be found here.


Katie Kuhl and Erin Sharp, MS, MAT, Smarter Lunchrooms Movement National Office

Stefanie Giannini, Marquardt School District 15, Glendale Heights, IL