Tastings Event Guide

If you can answer all of the questions below, you are well on your way to a successful tasting. Click on each question to be taken to more information on the topic. Download a PDF version of this page.

Why hold a cafeteria-based food tasting?
  • Tastings promote specific foods.
    • Tastings can highlight current menu items, gather feedback on potential menu items, or introduce menu options.
    • Small samples make new foods less scary.
  • Tastings support school meals.
    • Tastings are fun! Regularly offering tastings can improve the perception of school meal programs.
    • To model best practices for displaying, promoting, and serving healthy foods
  • Tastings promote good nutrition.
    • Tastings expose students to new foods.
    • Making tasting new foods a part of school culture encourages healthy eating habits.
    • Tastings can complement nutrition content taught in the classroom.
What foods will you taste?

Based on your goals, you may organize an event to taste foods that:

  • An under-selected menu item. Review menu with cafeteria staff for ideas.
  • A produce item available but not ordered. Ask the cafeteria manager whether they are allowed to occasionally order produce not on the menu. If so, ask them to share their produce availability sheet with you.
  • A potential fruit or vegetable menu item. Contact the school district nutrition services office to inquire about new items they are considering.
  • A new or unusual food linked to a nutrition education topic or theme. Tastings can reinforce concepts about locally-grown foods, MyPlate, or eating a variety of colors.

Check with the school nurse for student allergy information and try to be as inclusive as possible.  Consider having a gluten-free or dairy-free option during your food tasting.

When will you hold the tasting?

When selecting your tasting date:

  • Work with the cafeteria manager to identify days when the lunch menu requires less labor.
  • Consult the school calendar to avoid dates when the lunch schedule may be altered, such as early dismissals, field trips, and assemblies.
  • If the tasting will be highlighting an item that appears on the lunch menu, hold the tasting the day before the item will be on the service line so the tasting is fresh in students’ minds when they have the option of selecting it with lunch.
Who will participate in the tasting?

Depending on your goal and how much help you have preparing for the event, you may choose to offer the tasting to all students or a subset:

  • All students: This is the ideal, especially if your goal is to promote school meals in general. Including students who pack lunch in the tasting may encourage them to buy school lunch in the future. However, distributing samples to packers can require additional labor.
  • Only students who take/purchase lunch: If reaching all students isn’t possible, you may target students who participate in school lunch. If your goal is to promote a particular item on the menu, your regular customers are a good target audience.
  • A particular lunch shift: If this is your first tasting, limiting participation to one lunch shift may make it less overwhelming. If your goal is to promote good nutrition, there may be one or two grades that offer the best potential to link to nutrition education.
  • A focus group: If you are introducing a potential menu item through the tasting and hope to get detailed feedback from students, you may choose to do a focus group tasting. You will likely want to hold this tasting during a time other than lunch to allow time for discussion. An existing club or student leadership group could be targeted for the tasting.
How will you procure the food for the tasting?

Whenever possible, the cafeteria manager should order the featured ingredient for the tasting, if not all ingredients. This includes the cafeteria in the planning process and ensures authentic connection to the school menu.

How will the samples be prepared and served?

Discuss preparation of the sampled item with the cafeteria staff. They may be comfortable preparing everything themselves—they prepare hundreds of meals every day! They may welcome assistance in the cafeteria from ServSafe certified partners. Also discuss the plan for filling trays with portioned samples before students arrive and throughout the tasting. Will this take place in the cafeteria kitchen or at the tasting station? Is there equipment for keeping trays of portioned samples cool or warm? Do service supplies (e.g., portion cups, trays, sampling spoons/forks) need to be procured? Use the Tasting Event Materials Checklist to identify the materials you’ll need to safely prepare and store samples, and set up a sampling station that makes students want to try new foods!

Where will samples be distributed?

You may choose to set up a tasting station that students visit to take a sample. Place your sampling station in a location students much pass, such as right as they exit the service line. Alternatively, you may choose to serve students samples at their seats. This takes more labor but ensures all students will receive a sample without disrupting normal traffic flow. Alternatively you could do both—serve students who buy lunch from a tasting station before they return to their seats, and circulate with trays to offer samples to packers or those who didn’t stop at the tasting station.

Whatever you decide, communicate with administrators, teachers, and cafeteria monitors about any changes to traffic flow and student procedures during lunch to minimize disruption.

Who will assist during the tasting?

Arrange to have two to five people assist with the tasting, depending on the size of the school. Volunteers are needed to portion and serve samples, take photos, and interact with students. If you will be serving samples to seated students, try to have at least four people. Volunteers may include cafeteria monitors, teachers, parents, wellness team members, school district personnel, or even students. Everyone who will be serving will need to be trained on food safety procedures, including proper hand washing.

How will you make your tasting fun and exciting?

The tone of the tasting should encourage students to be adventurous in exploring new and unfamiliar foods. Offering free samples of healthy foods may be enough fun. But if you really want to make it an event, consider giving stickers to all brave taste testers, or bringing “selfie signs” that allow students to proclaim their enthusiasm in photos (which can be posted to social media). You might also invite a popular administrator or teacher to serve as a celebrity taster.

Providing incentives can help students see the experience as fun and exciting rather than scary or unwelcome. The Tasting Events Materials Checklist includes materials through which students earn incentives by tasting, as well as ideas for prizes to award students who try the samples. Incentives should include non-food rewards.

The Tasting Event Materials Checklist includes a list of items to help deliver nutrition education messages during the tasting and link to classroom content. The checklist includes links to signage and other educational materials to share nutrition information about samples, and remind students of lessons they completed in the classroom.

If possible, make copies of recipes to send home with students.

Post the Tasting Rules at the tasting station to set a standard for how students reach to the sampled foods. The rules include:

  • EVERYONE is encouraged to taste the food (allergy exempt).
  • Words such as “yuck” and “ugh” are NOT allowed, especially before tasting.
  • Use your VOCABULARY – use adjectives to describe what you like and don’t care for about food tastes and textures.
  • TASTE FIRST and then decide if you like it or not.
  • After tasting, YOU CHOOSE if you want to finish eating the remainder on your plate.
  • TASTES CHANGE so try the food again if you have tried it at some other time and place.
How will you promote the tasting?

Generate excitement about the tasting by promoting it before the event. Promotional materials should reach parents, teachers, staff, and students with a consistent message. Find out if you can invite parents; their attendance will allow them to see their children trying new foods, and allow them to serve as role models. You may also want to send a note home after the tasting to inform parents about what their child tasted and encourage them to discuss the experience with their child.

These flyers and morning announcements can help promote the tasting. Don’t forget to give the featured food a creative name to generate interest!

How will you gather student feedback at the tasting?

Provide a mechanism by which students can express their opinions about the samples using polite and appropriate language or a voting system. This can provide valuable information to inform food service operations. Examples of methods for collecting feedback include:

  • Show of hands: This is quick, easy, and informal, but requires you have access to a loudspeaker to announce the vote.
  • Stamps/stickers on a poster: Provide a poster that students can visit to cast their vote. Stamps are quick and easy but students may double stamp, and may allow students who did not taste to vote. Stickers ensure one vote per taster but can end up in undesirable locations. If using a poster, think through where the poster will be located and when/how students will visit.
  • Tokens placed in buckets: Provide each taster with a poker chip or similar token and have them place it in a bucket marked with a thumbs up or thumbs down. Think through the bucket location and when/how students will visit.
  • Informal conversation: Chatting with students can allow you to gather detailed feedback from students on what they do and don’t like about the sampled food.
How will you set up your station?

Gather all of your materials a few days in advance, including food service materials, aprons, promotional signage, stickers, and student feedback materials.

If setting up a tasting table that students will visit, employ Smarter Lunchrooms principles:

  • Make samples visible and attractive by serving them on brightly colored trays displayed at eye level to students. Colorful foods stand out nicely when served in black sample cups.
  • Enhance taste expectations by giving samples creative names (see Alphabetical Descriptors for Creating Catchy Food Names) and making the display interesting and attractive.
  • Display an example of the whole ingredients included in the sample(s), and/or an ingredient list with nutrition facts.
How will you prepare your volunteers?

Have your volunteers arrive early so they can be trained in food safety. Offer them an opportunity to sample the food, and remind them of the tasting rules so they can role model appropriate etiquette. Volunteers can be assigned to or rotate through jobs including portioning and distributing samples, distributing stickers, taking pictures, and guiding students through the feedback process.

Review this Verbal Prompting guide with your volunteers. Brainstorm a few verbal nudges they can use to encourage student excitement about trying new foods.

What follow up happens after a tasting?

If the sampled food will be offered on the school menu, visit the school to observe selection, remind students of the tasting experience, nudge them to select the item, and/or provide stickers for trying it again as part of lunch. Cafeteria staff may benefit from role modeling these positive nudging techniques during “normal” lunch service. You may also help them apply Smarter Lunchrooms principles to highlight the featured item on the service line using colorful serving ware, creative naming, or signage.

If students provided feedback on the sampled item, report outcomes in a variety of forms, such as announcing on the morning announcements, including a write up in the school newsletter, or distributing a recipe for or using the favorite food to the whole school. Be sure food service supervisors at the school district are aware of your results.

Don’t forget to debrief with the cafeteria staff. Here are some questions to start a conversation:

  • How do you think students responded to the tasting? Was it what you expected?
  • Review the logistics of the food tasting: did the location work? Did you have enough staff? Did students and teachers know about the event? What changes could be made for next time?
  • How can you use future tasting events to engage the family or the community?

Share what you learned with the principal, teachers, and any partners at the school district. Be sure to recognize the hard work of the cafeteria staff—they often do not receive the recognition they deserve.

Most importantly, build on your experience. Don’t forget to go back to your notes as you prepare for the next tasting!