Monday, March 29, 2010

Behind the Kitchen Door Series: The Salad Bar

There was no salad bar to speak of when I was in high school, so seeing one on my first day on the job in my school's cafeteria showed me that school lunches have come a long way.  The salad bar at my school holds twelve crocks of items in addition to a large pan of lettuce mix.  Roughly half the crocks hold year-round staples such as tomatoes, cucumbers, red peppers, onions, and carrots.  The other half houses a random rotation of items like hummus, cottage cheese, yogurt, canned fruit, feta cheese, or croutons.  There’s usually a slot or two filled with salads that our salad lady comes up with on a whim or makes based on what we have in the kitchen.  One day it might be potato salad to use up a previous day’s excess of baked potatoes, the next it might be a salad of chickpeas, tomatoes and cucumber. 

Tomatoes, cucumbers, red peppers

I’m sure that what I’ve described so far is wonderful compared to those schools that don’t have a salad bar.  I’m happy to have it, but there’s always room for improvement.  Our non-staple salad items tended to start with canned items such as beets or sliced peaches or were very heavy on the mayonnaise and other ingredients I’d rather not serve.      

While it’s unrealistic to eliminate every canned good, we now supplement the salad bar with legumes, whole grains, and fresh vegetables.  We’re making these changes to the salad bar one crock at a time.  Though we don’t have a precise system in place, we are trying to switch out some of the more processed items with items we cook in the kitchen.  Because these small changes don’t take huge amounts of time to make nor do they require lots of space on the stove or oven, the salad bar was one of the first areas of improvement to our school lunch.    
Clockwise from upper left: carrots, croutons, pineapple, zucchini salad, hummus, onion 

In addition to canned beans, we now use a variety of dried lentils, crimson, black, and green, to make simple salads.  They’re high in fiber, and cook in less than twenty minutes.  Quinoa, a whole grain that's high in protein, is an addition to the salad bar that has gotten a lot of people talking because most haven’t heard of it.  (Learn more about quinoa at the Whole grains Council. )  Just like bulgur, which we also started serving this year, it’s quick to prepare and a great base to a pilaf that can include vegetables, herbs, and spices.  Roasted vegetables have made it onto our salad bar and have been a huge hit, especially the butternut squash from a local farm.  We roast one or two pans at a time, which means that we might be borrowing the oven for fifteen minutes while the main meal is cooking in the oven too.

Tomorrow: More about the changes to the salad bar 


  1. It doesn't appear like any iceberg lettuce is in the bin. Thats wonderful. haha. We had a salad bar when I was in school but we just had weird, watery iceberg. I like iceberg, don't get me wrong, but there are so many other lettuces out there. It's great to see them used.

  2. Wow! The closest thing to salad my school served was lettuce, salsa and cheese over fritos. HUGE improvement vs 15 years ago.

    My first thought, though, was "why no nuts or cheese?" then I remembered nut allergies are rampant. Have you considered seeds like unsalted, raw sunflower and pepitas or dried fruits? All would certainly make the "easy & nutritious" list.

  3. I wish we had a salad bar when I was in school! You could get salads if you were one of the first 50 kids in line, not that they were at all nutritious. They consisted of shredded iceberg lettuce, bits of ham or turkey, and shredded cheddar cheese, all topped off with ranch dressing. I am a vegetarian and you would think that I could at least eat a salad at school but because the whole thing came pre-made mixed, I could not. I survived school on buns and the generosity of my peers.