Wake County student food critics taste new school lunch options

Dillard Drive Middle School students taste test school lunch foods

Students sample foods during a taste-testing of potential school lunch products at Dillard Drive Middle School Wednesday, October 14, 2015 in Raleigh, N.C.
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Students sample foods during a taste-testing of potential school lunch products at Dillard Drive Middle School Wednesday, October 14, 2015 in Raleigh, N.C.

Ten-year-old Zion Whimper’s mouth was full with his second muffin when he signaled his approval of the sweet potato chocolate chip concoction in front of him.

“Aren’t these the best muffins you ever had?” Zion asked classmate and fellow food judge, 12-year-old Ashley Mantz, while still munching on the muffin.

The two were playing food critic along with several other classmates at Dillard Drive Middle School as part of National School Lunch Week. They were tasked with taste-testing five new dishes that could appear on the breakfast or lunch menus for the entire Wake County school system, or about 78,000 meals a day.

In addition to the muffin, they tried pepper jack enchiladas with tomatillo sauce, a cowboy chicken sandwich, an Asian noodle bowl with chicken and a mixed salad cup with quinoa.

Zion and Ashley were among five students in the school’s food nutrition class who had the honors of serving as judges, picked for having the highest grades in their class.

The student judges – each with varying levels of cooking expertise – rated the foods on five criteria: appearance, taste, texture, temperature and overall acceptability.

Before school staff place a new item on the menu, they have children taste-test it, said Sharon Schwinger, a WCPSS Child Nutrition Services administrator.

“We get new food ideas based on a lot of trends that come around,” Schwinger said. “Like spicy right now is cool, and noodles are cool.”

School system staff sought approval from at least three out of the five judges before adding it to school menus later this school year.

That wasn’t a difficult task as the dishes easily won approval from the entire panel of judges who gave all five food items positive ratings.

But the hit of the day was by far the muffin, which was created in the school’s cafeteria by Emma Hutchinson, a WCPSS Child Nutrition Services manager. Hutchinson is also working on creating a blueberry muffin recipe.

“This is our first attempt at going back to scratch-made, home-made,” Hutchinson said. “I’m really excited about it, and I’m really glad to see the kids like it, too.”

While Zion typically eats breakfast at home, he said the muffin would definitely bring him to school for breakfast in the morning.

“The moisture of it is really good, and the texture,” Zion said. “It also looks really good, and it’s really sweet.”

While the muffins were a hit, the judges had several other new lunch favorites that they couldn’t wait to enjoy again.

Zion, described as “a microwave chef,” enjoyed the cowboy chicken sandwich, which was made with chicken, barbeque sauce, an onion ring and turkey bacon. But he thought the pepper jack enchiladas and the Asian noodle bowl could be too spicy for some children.

“It all really depends on the kid,” he said.

The group also enjoyed the mixed salad, which was served in a cup and had to be shaken up to mix the ranch dressing with the corn, black beans, lettuce, tomato and other ingredients.

“It was really creative and fun,” said Riley Sutter, 11.

Zion and Ashley said all of the dishes were so delicious that they weren’t sure they would have room for dinner.

“It was the perfect way to end the school day,” Zion said.

Kathryn Trogdon; 919-460-2608; @KTrogdon