6 Quick Lessons From The School Lunch Line For Pleasing Picky Customers

They want chicken nuggets. You’ve got broccoli. Here’s how to create a delicious solution.

6 Quick Lessons From The School Lunch Line For Pleasing Picky Customers
[Image: Flickr user U.S. Department of Agriculture]

I’ve been visiting school cafeterias lately and talking with food service directors for a longer project I’m doing on school meals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has tightened up nutrition standards for school lunches and breakfasts, and while–in theory–that’s a good thing in an era of high childhood obesity rates, healthy food won’t help if the kids don’t eat it. So now school nutritionists are faced with a thankless task millions of parents have failed at: getting kids to eat broccoli. And spinach. And kale. And other green things.


Some districts are successful at rolling out healthier menus, even if your average child would prefer to eat chicken nuggets three times a day. In the process, they’ve figured out ways to win over picky customers that any business can learn from.

1. Involve them into the process.

The St. Paul, Minnesota, schools have parent advisory councils that work with nutritionists on new recipes. This particularly helps as St. Paul introduces ethnic dishes to the menu; Hmong Beef Fried Rice is a staple, created with input from Hmong families. A growing number of schools have gardens, created with the hope that a kid who tends an arugula plant is more likely to try it. Whatever you’re rolling out, you can ask for customer feedback along the way, and invite people to play with prototypes.

2. Give a nod to what they know.

At the Salem County Career and Technical High School in New Jersey, the menu features chicken nuggets, but they’re made with whole grains, and the bun on the Sloppy Joes is whole grain, too. “They haven’t said a word,” the food service director tells me about his students. Even pizza can have a whole grain crust, low-fat cheese, low-sodium sauce and ideally veggies piled up on top. If you’re introducing a new product, you can try to keep a few features the same from older versions so people still feel comfortable. A mix of old and new is sometimes easier to swallow than just new.

3. Free samples never hurt.


A smart school nutrition team will give everyone a little taste and a sticker to say they tried it. The next time it lands on the menu, the dish will be familiar enough that more people will grab it. The free sample concept leads people to buy all sorts of things at Costco, and in any business, lowering the cost of trying something to nothing makes it far easier to say yes.

4. Use peer dynamics. People are naturally competitive.

A school might create a challenge: Boys versus girls. Who can get the most people to try a new carrot dish? At the New Jersey high school, the food services director will walk out into the cafeteria and ask students to try a bite of something new. Direct asks make it harder to say no than merely putting asparagus on the lunch line and hoping people will take it. Likewise, getting a few early adapters to talk up a product with their friends can increase social pressure on people to give it a whirl.

5. Don’t give up immediately.

In Provo, Utah, the schools wanted to switch from iceberg lettuce to more nutrient-rich spring greens in salads. The food services director reports that it took a full year for the elementary school students to truly accept it. Now they expect salads to be bright green. Often, people need multiple exposures to new ideas and products before they’re willing to try them.

6. On the other hand, accept your limitations.


In St. Paul, a Karen dish–coconut chicken–just didn’t fly with the kids, despite it testing pretty well. The nutrition team eventually pulled it from the menu. At Salem County Career and Technical High School, the food director reports that it’s almost impossible to sell fish to the kids. So it rarely makes the lunch line. Sometimes you have to let the customers be right — even if they’re not.

About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at