Junior Chef Competitions

Key Benefits

Junior chef competitions are an innovative way to increase student participation in your school food program. The competition is appropriate for both elementary and secondary level contestants. You can also involve the local community to engage more stakeholders.

A little competition mixed with teamwork makes for a great learning environment. The junior chef competition allows students to contribute to their school lunch menu while learning more about how the National School Lunch Program actually operates.

Competitions usually consist of five to six teams, although this may vary depending on the size of your district. Elementary and secondary competitions are planned and hosted separately. On the day of the competition, the teams chosen to compete will come together to cook-off for a chance to have their recipe added to next year’s lunch menu.

Each recipe is judged on the following criteria: USDA nutrition guideline requirements, cost per serving for the complete meal, appearance of the final dish, taste, organization, hygiene and food safety of the team while preparing the meal, and if it can be replicated for large scale food service.

Key Benefits

  • Students gain valuable life skills by working as a team to create and cook.
  • Students gain confidence by presenting and speaking about their recipes to the judging panel and audience.
  • Through engaging in the competition, students learn to appreciate what it takes to get lunch on their tray each day.
  • Students grow their understanding of USDA school meal requirements (the “complete meal”) and the basics of nutrition.

How To Conduct A Junior Chef Competition

This is a step-by-step plan to host a Junior Chef Competition. The guide provides links to communication templates that can be customized for your own Junior Chef event.


  1. Send Junior Chef Announcement Letter to elementary and/or secondary administration along with the following documents:

Note: You’ll want to budget enough time to receive and review team applications. We suggest sending the Announcement Letter three months prior to the event date.

  1. The application review should consider nutrition requirements, meal cost, and recipe creativity. Keep all recipe forms for each team so that they can be returned to contestants at the end of the cooking competition.
  2. Make your team selections within a month of the event date so that contestants have time to prepare for the competition.
  3. Invite students from the teams that were not selected to serve as kid judges for the competition.
  4. Select food service judges; can include the director, production chef, registered dietician, and other employees from the food service department.
  5. Identify popular restaurants in the area and invite community chefs to judge.
  6. Identify potential competition sponsors and send out a Community Sponsor Letter. Community sponsorships and donations can come in many forms:
    • Cash sponsorships from existing vendors and local businesses
    • Competition T-shirts for team members
    • Product, promotional, and coupon donations for participant prize bags
  7. Send out Junior Chef Press Release at least four weeks prior to the competition to invite the public and media to attend.
  8. Work with school administration to invite parents, families, and friends to the event.


  1. Choose a spacious location within the school district. A facility with a fully functioning kitchen is recommended.
  2. Identify Volunteers and Interns to help with setup, logistics, and photography.
  3. We suggest planning for a two-and-a-half hour event to give contestants 90 minutes to prepare, cook, and plate their meal.
  4. Secure audio setup for MC presenter.
  5. Select prize/s to present to winners, runners-up, and/or all contestants. Consider printing a large blank check for the winning team and certificates for all participants.
  6. Print copies of Junior Chef Judges Sheets and completed recipe entry forms. Bring clipboards and pens for your judges.

Setting up Cooking Stations

Teams are encouraged to bring any equipment they might need, but you should also set up a basic cooking station for them. This list includes important station must-haves. For each team, provide:

  1. Table (8’ recommended)
  2. Plus one extra table for judges
  3. Portable burner with 2 butane cans 
  4. Sauté pans (12” recommended)
  5. A chef’s knife, spatula, whisk, serving spoon, dish towel, and cutting board for each team
  6. 4 clean plates and 1 cup (two plates for judging, two for public tasting, cup for milk requirement)
  7. Signs with team names on each station
  8. Tasting spoons at each station
  9. Gloves and sanitizer bucket

Day of Management

  1. Setup individual cooking stations.
  2. Set up the judging table with napkins, tasting forks, knives, and a bin for dirty silverware.
  3. Meet with judges to review judging criteria and encourage them to write notes throughout the competition.
  4. Welcome everyone and go over the following information:
    • Explain competition guidelines, timing of cooking, and presenting.
    • Introduce teams, food service judges, guest chefs, and kid judges.
  5. Start the competition.  
  6. Throughout the cooking time have the MC talk to each team and ask how they chose their recipe, how they prepared for the competition, etc. Also ask kid judges what they look for in a school lunch or what recipe they’re most excited to try. Find out more about chef judges and why they came out to judge the competition.
  7. End cooking time and begin the plate presentations. Tier presentation times if desired. Have each team describe their recipe (two plates should be brought up) before the judges taste the dish. Clear plates to make space for the next team.
  8. Judges deliberate. (This is where their notes will come in handy.)
  9. During deliberation encourage the teams to try each other’s recipes.
  10. Announce the judges’ decisions and present prize to the winning team.
    • Note: Some districts may choose to give additional prize bags to runners-up or all teams.
  11. Give judging sheets and initial application forms to each team. These judging packets serve as helpful learning tools for future competitions.

Event Follow-Up

  1. Send a follow-up email or letter for administration to distribute to school parents. Include pictures and any fun kid quotes or comments from the day. This will inform parents who were unable to attend or didn’t hear about the event, possibly motivating them to participate in the future.
  2. Thank-you letters are always a good way to get your volunteers coming back for more. Be sure to send your volunteers a quick thank-you to let them know you appreciate their help.

Junior Chef Resources

Take advantage of the following resources and documents when planning your own junior chef competitions. You can tailor them to meet your event specifications.

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