School mealtimes are about more than nutrition. They’re a time for students to relax, recharge, and connect with peers—often the highlight of the school day. For private K-12 schools, the dining experience plays an important role in the overall satisfaction and well-being of the student population. Smart schools are always looking for new ways to improve satisfaction, recruitment, retention, and participation through a top-notch dining experience.
While a total dining overhaul might feel overwhelming or out of reach, nurturing a positive campus dining experience doesn’t have to be expensive or complex. As a specialized managed food service provider, we’re always amazed and inspired by the ways our teams help clients get creative in the dining hall.
Small changes to your routine or setup can make a big impact on your school’s dining experience. Here are just a few simple questions to consider about your current program, and our favorite suggestions for creating a welcoming, positive, restorative experience for students and staff:
Bump up the variety.
Students are more likely to enjoy mealtimes if they have a variety of tasty options to choose from. Take a look at your current menu offerings – do they represent a range of healthy and popular tastes, or do your menus feel stale and predictable? Do your menus accommodate different preferences and restrictions? Do your options incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources to provide students with the nutrients they need to perform their best?
- Introduce a new salad bar topping or two to incorporate more fresh fruits and vegetables into meals.
- Work with your food service provider to feature a different international cuisine once a week (or month).
- Try a “Grab and Go” station to provide students with easy, convenient meals on the move. For suggestions and ideas, see our post here.
Make everyone feel welcome.
A warm, welcoming dining environment can help students feel more comfortable and relaxed at mealtimes, which can lead to a more positive experience overall. Is your dining area clean, well-lit, and comfortable? Does it nurture connection and relaxation? Is it a place you’d want to hang out with your friends?
- Add plants to the dining area to create a more natural and inviting atmosphere.
- Create a space to display rotating student artwork, or commission your art department to create a colorful mural.
- Rearrange your existing tables and chairs to encourage socializing and conversation.
- Play calming music to add ambiance and create an enjoyable atmosphere for students and staff alike.
Get students involved.
Engaging students in the menu planning process and other dining program decisions can help increase their buy-in and encourage participation in your dining program. Do your students have a voice in your dining program? Do they have a regular opportunity to offer suggestions and have their opinions heard? Do they see their suggestions come to life?
- Hold regular taste tests to gather student input on new menu options.
- Ask for input often, whether through surveys administered by your food service provider or a simple suggestion box where students can submit their meal ideas.
- Recognize student input: when you implement a change suggested by a student, recognize them by name and thank them for their idea.
Engage your staff.
Friendly, welcoming, and helpful dining staff can make a significant impact on a student’s dining experience. Is your staff trained to provide excellent customer service? Do they go out of their way to engage with students in a positive way? Do they know students by name (and vice versa?) Do they understand their role in your school’s mission?
- Host regular customer service training for all dining staff – and be clear about your expectations for service and attitude.
- Reward outstanding staff regularly with special “spotlight” awards, gift certificates, perks (like a bonus paid half-day), and other recognition.
- A little kindness goes a long way! Encourage staff to greet students by name and engage in friendly conversation.
Create special days.
Hosting special events can help keep your campus dining program from falling into a rut. Special events break up the monotony of the school day and create a more enjoyable dining experience for students. Does your dining program shake things up just for fun? Does your program give your students something to look forward to at mealtimes?
- Celebrate cultural events by offering special menu items that reflect the cuisine of that culture.
- Host an after-school cooking class where students can learn how to prepare healthy meals.
- Invite a local restaurant chef for a “guest appearance” with special menu items
- Host easy theme days—think Taco Tuesday or Macaroni Monday—to make mealtimes feel special.
Nurturing a positive dining experience within your food service program doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. Even small changes and efforts can have a big impact on the way your students view mealtimes. If you’ve partnered with a managed food service provider, they should be able to help you implement any of the ideas above and should be ready to contribute their own thoughts and strategies around making your dining program the very best it can be.