Saturday, March 13, 2010


A “thaw-and-serve” meal is the industrial version of the TV dinner. It’s the kind of meal that comes out of my cafeteria hotline. Preparing the meal involves thawing it in the oven to about 160 degrees and then serving it. The stuff can go from frozen to ready in twenty minutes. Hamburgers, nuggets, chicken patties, mac and cheese, and pizza are all “thaw-and-serve.”

Cooking is nearly extinct in the school kitchen, and it makes me wonder how this happened. Once upon a time there were family-style meals at my school with food that was baked, sautéed, or roasted. “Thaw-and-serve” didn’t exist.

Making egg salad traditionally involved boiling and peeling eggs. It’s time and labor intensive: pulling the eggs out of the water when the yolks are fully cooked, uniformly yellow, and not tinged with a green ring takes skills.

Today, we never have a problem with sulfur-y, overcooked eggs. Our egg salad starts with hardboiled eggs in bags that keep for a surprisingly long time in the fridge. The eggs are perfectly cooked and peeled every time! Who knew that you could get eggs like that? Not long after seeing eggs in a bag in my school kitchen, I spotted them at one of my favorite grocery stores.

In schools, food isn’t the priority, clearly. Often times, it isn’t in our homes either.

Part 2: How my school went from family-style meals to “thaw-and-serve” feed lots.


  1. I would like to hear much more from you about school kitchens. For example, considering the current pay structure for school food employees, how good could the food get from its current lowly place?

  2. As a future teacher and health-food junkie, I'm super excited to read your blog! Food and nutrition is a giant hobby of mine, and school lunches help me learn about it in the context of my career. Thanks!

  3. Hi I am currently working in a school Cafeteria for middle school kids.
    It has really been a real eyeopener .
    The fast past that the whole operation is run is totally unbelievable ,
    working at Mc Donald's would be less stressful. And you wonder how
    the kids manage to eat that fast.
    My job is 4 3/4 hours long ,on a normal day we serve 3 lunches in about 2 hours . We spend about 15 minutes serving around 70 kids
    each lunch then you got to heat up the food and clean the trays in between.
    There is a lot of things that upset me about the food they serve.
    Most of it is frozen breaded stuff/mostly chicken ...
    The eggs are frozen they look like yellow sponges . And the use
    this progressed cheese sauce for all kinds of dishes.
    It comes in a big bag ,most be really cheap... The mash potatoes
    are the potato buds which have hydrated oils in them.
    And there are greasy fries every day but friday .
    This is just the tip of the iceberg ,....
    Real change is needed ...

  4. Hello, I'm a manager in an elementary school in Houston Texas. I'd like to share my opinion of what I feel are some of the issues that have grown over time into a brick wall between our kids and fresh healthy meals at school. We are lucky in that we do have a well equipped kitchen but I can relate to the part about the short amount of time allotted to make the food. These days the school kitchen staff and their schedules have been trimmed down and stretched as close to the breaking point as humanly possible. It's down to a science now: (cook need's 3.2 minutes to pan those, 4.1 seconds to stir that, 6 minutes to wash these, etc.). My staff hits the door running and they run through their day at lightening speed. They have to if they want to get their jobs done in time. Each year the number of staff and their hours get trimmed more and our expected "meals per man hour" quota gets higher. We do need to go back to cooking from fresh. I believe in most cases our problem with obesity comes more from what we eat than how much. We live off of frozen,fast,processed food that has been stuffed full of chemicals and depleated of all the nutrition it once might of had. Without question the last place we should be serving food like this is in our schools.
    I understand that there are many wonderful recipes that are fast to make. Infact we do still make several of our dishes from scratch. But realistically will all of the recipes be as fast for 700 servings as heat and serve? Because that's all the time we have!
    School districts need the funds to give their kitchen staff the tools and time to cook nutritious foods from fresh. I also believe that part of the reason for the thaw & serve method is due to insurance and liability. With thaw & serve there are less steps and less opportunities for the food to be mishandled or contaminated. With everyone so scared of law sutes and bad press they are afraid to serve things like fresh chicken and beef. Because children are a potentially at risk population we do need to be careful with food safety. If we do decide to go to fresh we need to have the time to prepare these foods safely and we need to be able to offer a pay scale that will attract a good professional minded worker, who is required to meet strict training and education on the health and saftey of food. Cooking from fresh is a change that needs to be done and a little bit of re-looking at the job and the importance of the people who will be producing this change on a daily basis needs to be done as well. We also need to look at how we raise our food animals. We feed them the cheepest feed we can and fill them full of hormones and antibiotics so that they can digest it and grow fast. I wonder if all these antibiotics we are consuming in our food aide in the problem we seem to be having with our antibiotics loosing their effectivness?
    We keep them imobile so that they get fat and soft(we are what we eat right?). We need to find a way to spend a little more on our food so farmers can afford to feed cows what cows are supposed to eat.
    Now I would like to include some things our district is doing already to help encourage our students to eat healthy:
    We offer fresh fruit at breakfast and lunch. We almost always have 4 or more fruit and vegetable choices, many fresh. We offer and encourage our elementary students to order a chef salad whenever they wish and our students do like to order the salads. We also have a program that was started at our school this year where we send a fresh fruit or vegetable snack to each student in every classroom Tuesday - Friday. Many school food services are working to encourage our kids to eat healthy. Thank you Mr. Oliver and all the people who are helping and supporting his idea. We do need to make changes in the way we feed our children and in the way we eat as well.

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