I am a big believer in the value of student taste tests and focus groups. Ask the right questions and listen to the answers and you can reinvent school lunch meals to be more nutritious and more popular.
Here are a few lessons learned from student taste tests and focus groups:
- Turn off your sales mode. Even if you believe Chicken Extraordinaire is the best thing on your menu, don’t argue with kids who compare it to cat food. (If they do think it tastes like cat food, it goes.)
- Design simple scoring sheets. I like to use a range of easy-to-understand emoticons.
- Keep detailed questions about appearance, flavor, texture, aroma, and overall appeal to focus group discussions.
- Presentation matters. Kids respond more enthusiastically to fruit skewers than chunks of a single fruit in a bowl. Don’t assume that if they vote down pineapple in one form they categorically dislike it.
- Involve influencers in taste tests. Typically, these students are athletes, student government representatives, band members, and leaders from clubs.
- Add some fun to taste tests. Play background music. Give out small prizes. Decorate with posters or streamers. Ask teachers or the principal to be involved in serving samples.
- Don’t be stingy with the sample size. Provide enough for a couple of bites or sips.
- Go big, as a school district. Host a food festival and invite multiple food vendors to participate. Involve parents, PTO members, and community leaders. A food festival can be a great opportunity to build support for healthy eating.
- Show your appreciation. Let students know their input will drive menu changes. Thank them for sharing their ideas.
- Get a kick-start from the Ingenious Culinary Concept Focus Group Kit. The kit includes DVDs of focus groups with elementary, middle school, and high school students; an execution guide; sample questions; and more.