Menu Development


When we talk about changing from ready-to-heat foods to fresh foods in the context of menu planning, letting go of prior presumptions is important. Does your high school menu always have the same five items daily, plus one daily special? Is the daily special the one meal that your team feels like they are “cooking from scratch” but the students are not selecting it as frequently as you’d like? This is a good example of how your new vision for the program is competing with the old. It is actually more difficult to develop students’ taste for fresh foods when their unhealthy habits are still being fulfilled.

The following pages contain a few guidelines that we suggest as you work with your team on your new menu planning.

Cycle Menu Planning

Now that you have a vision and have outlined your procurement goals, what should be your next step? Menus! Your menus will drive your procurement. Though we often hear, “I have a lot of XYZ” in storage and I need to use it up in my menus,” that strategy is a direct result of purchasing or allocating without menu planning and without reasonable forecasts of volume paired to your participation history. It is common for districts to feel “lost” when they shift away from ready-to-heat foods and the core items that anchored their menu planning are no longer there. 

So, you want to transition away from the spicy chicken patty? Great. Then what? Planning! We have created Menu Cycles within The Lunch Box to help you formulate your menus plans. For more options, you can also check with your state agency, borrow cycles from a successful colleague, or create your own. The primary point is that you need to have a plan.

While some districts may choose to create a menu and adjust it as they go, that approach carries accountability and efficiency risks. The school year, which is most often 180 days or less, offers a finite window of opportunity to demonstrate that your menu plan is effective and popular. If your district is committed to focusing your programs on selling the reimbursable meals without relying heavily on à la carte sales to balance your budget, then the extra time spent on menu planning will reward you with a more effective use of your resources.

One of the most common sights that we see in our visits to school district warehouses is excess inventory. It is a burden in more ways than just the space that it takes up. Excess inventory can become a barrier for your district to innovate, tweak, and shift its menu strategy. Utilizing menu cycles provides a built-in framework that can really help with transitioning your team to working with new food, new standardized recipes, and the overall new vision. Here’s how it works: 

  • Repetition reinforces training. Cycle menus provide the building blocks for developing skilled production environments. More popular items may hit the menu weekly while others are served six times a year or less. Each time your team prepares a recipe they will improve and create a more efficient process. 
  • Cycle menus allow for innovation with less risk. Because you can evaluate the resources required to produce the menu for the school year ahead of time, you can insert choices that may cost more with less frequency and still support a sustainable procurement approach.
  • Fewer choices result in more clarity for your program. This may seem counter intuitive, but investing in the more complex food production model required in scratch cooking requires rethinking the logic of menu choices. Fewer choices ensure a better return on the investment of the products and labor that it takes to bring fresh food to the kids. The menu cycles will still offer a variety of popular and recognizable foods, and enough age-appropriate choice, but not too much. 


Cycle Planning Steps

Every school food professional who works with menu cycles has their favorite way of operating. Here are ours, but know that we’re always open to hearing and sharing your ideas too!

How many weeks? 

For lunch we prefer a six-week cycle. Regardless of the number of weeks in your district’s calendar, six weeks of menus gives the team a wide array of choices and frequencies without creating too many. Six weeks also allows the months of the school year to never look the same, even though you know the underlying pattern. If you have an item that is a great seller, it’s easy to insert it as a three-week occurrence when you have a six-week menu. That said, there is no right or wrong cycle length, this is simply what we’ve found works well for districts that we’ve worked in, and many of our colleagues agree.

In general, we particularly like even numbers. So for breakfast, either in the cafeteria or breakfast in the classroom, two weeks is most common. For after school snack we also use a two-week cycle.  Though it’s common to see a four-week menu for breakfast, upon closer examination these breakfast menus usually reflect a two-week influence.

Factors to Consider

The Salad Bar: We recommend utilizing a salad bar (aka garden, harvest, or offering bar) as a daily part of your menu-planning structure. The Salad Bars section of The Lunch Box discusses the various options for incorporating salad bars as part of your menu. If you can’t presently imagine this option in your district, it is definitely worth considering.

Side Dishes: As noted above in salad bars, there is a trade-off that can be applied to the overall plan when salad bars are utilized. This reduces the incidence of the typical vegetable that is a daily staple of the hot line but still allows for strategic placement of popular sides such as mashed potatoes. We often use side dishes to highlight and promote local foods (see Local and Regional Procurement).

The Entrees: We develop our cycle patterns around the entrées since their food and labor costs represent the primary cost driver of the meal. Practical considerations for patterning entrée choices in scratch-cook menus include: when the key ingredients are delivered and/or need to be defrosted; how much time one entrée takes in production as compared to another; what day of the week the most popular item should be served; if your district is offering vegetarian options daily. We also like to utilize the strategy of offering one district-wide main course daily across all age groups. This allows for more efficiency in procurement by focusing a large percentage of ingredient procurement that will drive better pricing and easier inventory management.

Meal Requirements: Crafting your menu with whole foods that are cooked from scratch is an approach that is compatible with the new regulations. Since HHFKA came into effect, the nutrient-based menu planning has been replaced by food-based planning. This new standard easily addresses vegetable sub-groups within a salad bar menu, which relieves the menu planner from repeating vegetables simply to meet the requirements.

Rough Draft Patterns to the Frequency Draft

Before you worry about exactly which poultry dish, sandwich, or pasta dish is served which week, take the time to create a rough draft of your menu cycle to ensure you don’t have a week where beef is being served three out of the five days. After you have the rough draft of patterns—chicken, beef, pasta, etc.—you can apply specific recipes, themes, or cultural influences and continue to work through the six weeks. 

Our simple Cycle Planning Workbook is an easy way to see how your cycle weeks compare to one another. Once you have a pattern that you are satisfied with, apply the six-week plan to the school year calendar, and be sure to note on your spreadsheet which days are closed, half days, or breaks.

The process of examining your cycle weeks against real dates will show you where you may need to adjust the cycle because of a closure. If a closure forces you to lose a popular item or causes the first operating day of the week to have a menu item that is not compatible with a three-day weekend, you can tweak that cycle. Once you have the cycle fairly firm and aligned with the calendar year, count the occurrences of each main course item in each cycle. The example below shows the menu cycles in a dated calendar format. The example below that shows a cycle worksheet with the number of occurrences for each item. Cycle one is illustrated in both samples. Most items occur six times during the year, but the entrées on Thursdays only occur four times during the year.

You can see in the example above that spring break is highlighted and the cycle is not skipped when the district is closed. This is important to ensure the integrity of the cycle patterns. For example, if you’d planned a less frequent item and you skipped that cycle because of a break, the opportunity for exposure to that item is lost.

This district also prints monthly menu calendars for distribution to the community. It is a useful marketing and education tool for the district.

Once you have an overall pattern and items selected, you can customize your cycle further to accommodate special events, holidays, commemorations, or any reason to shift a particular day. Cycle menus on the surface may appear to be potentially monotonous, but that is certainly not the case if you really spend time planning them. 

Menu Costing

The average cost of your menus serves as a baseline to assist in 1) projecting your budget, and 2) making item selections for procurement. There are various ways that average menu costs can be performed.

In the Fiscal Management section we discuss using average menu cost by meal type to project the upper threshold of your food expenditures (see Food Cost Projection Worksheet). Most back-office software provides costing by plate, recipe, and planned menus. But for districts that don’t have that option, the task becomes more complex depending on whether you are developing your menu from ready-to-serve foods or scratch cook. Scratch recipes will require costing by ingredient and volume divided by the serving yield. For packaged items, the math is as simple as dividing the case cost by the number of servings the case yields, by age group. 

The Simple Menu Cost Worksheet can be downloaded and edited further to meet your needs.  This worksheet assumes that all five components are consumed—though we know that realistically served portions are less than that. From a budgeting perspective, this is a conservative approach, especially when rolling out new menus for which you have no historical serving data. This worksheet also averages multiple main course costs. If you have production data and procurement history tracked for menus that you have run in the past, you can apply percentages of participation to each component as well as to the main course choices. Note: we do not recommend this approach unless you have enough experience with your menu cycles to be certain that you will not underestimate your food expenditures for the year.

Forecasting Ingredient Volume

Forecasting ingredient volume needs for your menus is a critical step in procurement. The ability to identify how much product you need is a powerful tool in developing effective vendor solicitations and relationships. 

Volume drives price; it can also drive services. Too often we find districts operating at the mercy of their vendors instead of driving the process. Being adept at collecting, tracking, and updating how your district uses the ingredients that you procure is a very useful tool in the school food procurement process. Data is power.

For districts that shift their production model to scratch cooking, forecasting also shifts from predominantly reviewing products carrying CN labels to considering the following factors: the raw ingredients, the cooked and prepped yields, and the total servings. You will need to consider the ADP by age group. The forecast is intended to ensure that you are procuring enough food to cover your average participation; so understanding the preferences of your population is particularly useful when planning procurement. If your cycles include several entrée choices, determining a reasonable percentage of popularity to apply to each entrée is necessary to maintain accuracy.

Our Sample Menu Forecasting Workbook illustrates how using a cycle menu and applying average ADP rates and frequency to menu items will provide useful procurement data for planning. The entrées with meat/meat alternate ingredients are the most important to identify with regards to annual volume. Many items often share the same protein, so being able to easily aggregate that volume is the goal of using a forecast worksheet. Sides, grains/breads, and produce can be added to your forecasting tool but we find that velocity data from your vendors, combined with your production records are most accurate for the items that are less predictable in the student selection given Offer vs. Serve.

Important Reference Data

There are several pieces of data that you can utilize to assist in the planning process. In addition to the annual ADP by age group, historical vendor velocity data is extremely useful. We suggest receiving monthly and year-to-date purchasing data from your vendors in an editable format like Excel. This information should be a requirement of every vendor agreement. Even if you use back-office software to manage all of your orders, receipts, and inventory, the vendor velocity data is still extremely useful.

If your vendors deliver to multiple sites, always request that the velocity reports be broken down by delivery site and provide a summary for all of the sites combined (see Sample Vendor Velocity Report). In addition to ADP data and vendor velocity reports, you will need your commodity records and inventory records from the previous year. With regard to inventory, you will have to make an estimation of what your ending inventory will be in order to subtract that product from your projections.

If you use back-office software there are a myriad of reports that can be used to assist in projections for procurement. These include production record audits—which show items served/leftover data, inventory movement reports, and shipping reports for food warehoused at a central location and shipped to the sites.

Key Documents for the Projection Process

  • Average Daily Participation: By age group for the prior year and the year-to-date. If projected enrollment and Free and Reduced percentages are expected to remain level, then use the current year ADP.
  • Vendor Velocity Reports: From the prior full year and year-to-date for the current year. If you had significant item shifts or menu changes between the previous year and the current year, you will need to use the current year’s data and project usage based on year-to-date participation.
  • Current Inventory Detail Report and Inventory Movement Report: Year-to-date (if you have the software).
  • Commodity Reports: From prior year and year-to-date for both USDA Foods and pass-through commodity items. For USDA Food program records, obtain an RA Entitlement/Bonus Detail Report from WBSCM or your state authority if your state does not use WBSCM for RA activity. This report will reflect all of the activity that took place, including which bulk commodities were allocated to pass-through. You can also request a Received RA Report, which is often requested by business managers at the end of the year. For pass-through items, the detailed records of your allocation are typically recorded through website tracking sites like Processor Link or, depending on the manufacturer/processor. These reports will reflect the flow of the particular commodity and what product it was manufactured into.  With regard to pass-through commodities remaining balances (unused or roll-over) are particularly important when planning for the following year. Each state is slightly different with regard to commodities, so when in doubt contact your state for assistance in accessing your information.
  • Production Record Audit: Data on the current menu cycle. Presumably you will have some overlap of items from the current year to the planned year. You can use the serving data to determine reasonable assumptions that will drive the volume of ingredients related to one item over another. For example, in proteins (M/MMA) the three biggest categories for volume are chicken, cheese, and beef, so depending on the top sellers and the frequency that they occur in your cycles, the volume of those ingredients will be the highest. 

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