Cycle Menu Planning Eases School Menu Compliance

School foodservice directors and kitchen managers benefit from more structure and time savings.
Young girl at school getting lunch

In reviewing federal meal patterns for school lunch, several conclusions seem clear: Change is hard. Kids’ eating habits are tough to break. And foodservice directors who employ cycle menus have an easier time complying with the updated nutritional requirements than those who don’t.

“Cycle menu planning is really the most effective tool an operator can use to successfully manage the changes we’re all dealing with today and in the future,” maintains Kathleen Kane, SNS, Director of Food Service Operations for Michigan City Area Schools in northwestern Indiana. “It makes the whole process easier, from menu planning to certification of compliance.”

A series of menus planned for a specific period of time—four weeks for example—a cycle menu offers different meals for each day within the cycle. When the cycle ends, it repeats again in the same order. This provides structure, predictability, and documentation—all helpful assets in planning, maintaining, and validating menus that meet the new nutritional standards.

Cycle menu meal planners help boost creativity and cost savings

Kane, who oversees foodservice operations for 17 sites throughout her district, has utilized cycle menus for the past four years. “I was dead set against cycle menus for a long time,” she recalls. “Primarily because I thought I’d be giving up creativity. But I decided to give them a try—and I am so glad, because there have been so many benefits, expected and unexpected.”

First and foremost is the time savings. “There is a lot of upfront work, planning your menus, gathering nutritional information, and putting everything into an accessible format,” Kane acknowledges. “But once you’ve got everything set, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every three or four or five weeks. And I discovered that it’s easy to make substitutions in the middle of cycles, so you can be creative in responding to customer feedback.”

That proved especially important when Kane and her staff introduced students to new healthy foods—some of which were well-received and some of which were not. Kane’s cycle menu planning allowed her the flexibility to replace the latter items before they came up on the menu again.

A number of schools reported higher food costs because of increased spending on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. But Kane reports that her food costs actually decreased—a development she attributes in large part to the control that cycle menus allow.

“Our schools are able to forecast their product needs very accurately based on their cycle menus,” she says. “It used to be that inventory drove the operation, and that has the potential for waste. Now it’s the menu that drives the operation, and waste is minimized.”

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Labor is also minimized, as staff members become more and more adept at preparing foods when they prepare them over and over again. “This also improves the quality of dishes, which makes our customers happier.”

Programs with allergy issues are better served, because all allergen information is linked to the cycle menus. Cycle menu planning also can assist in diverting commodities. Even printing costs are decreased. “We save $7,000 to $8,000 a year in design and printing costs, because we change our cycle menus only twice a year.” 

Choose your cycle—and your tools

Kane has devised a three-week cycle menu for elementary and middle schools, and a one-week cycle menu for high schools. “But the high school menu has 14 to 15 different entrée choices each week, so our students don’t get bored with the choices.”

Gordon Food Service has developed five-week menu cycles that can be used by K–12 customers. These menus, available for each grade level, meet all the new USDA regulations to ensure that schools qualify for the additional meal reimbursement offered under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Customers can access these menus on Gordon Experience under Resources > Great for Schools > Making the Grade.

For more information on cycle menus, please contact your Gordon Food Service Customer Development Specialist.

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