Healthy You Healthy Hennepin

Chef training

Veggie Love

April 2016

This story begins in a kitchen.

It’s March, and a group of school chefs don aprons. They wash their hands and assemble their utensils. And then they proceed to get hyped up over … cauliflower.

Normally the white cruciferous vegetable is not something a lot of people like – let alone get hyped up over — but chefs in this Robbinsdale Area School kitchen are determined to change that.

Today they’re learning how to create cauliflower recipes that will tantalize students and staff. First on their agenda? Chipotle Caesar cauliflower salad.

The instructors are Marshall O’Brien and Audrey Hutchinson from the Chef Marshall O’Brien Group. Both are wearing coats emblazoned with “Nutrition on a mission.”

O’Brien knows what an important mission this is. “We have a healthcare crisis in this country,” he says, matter-of-factly. “And 40 percent of health outcomes are dictated by health behaviors like what you put in your mouth. Eating is different than nourishing, and fortunately people are starting to recognize that.”

Eating is different than nourishing, and fortunately people are starting to recognize that.
Chef Marshall O’Brien



Could eating more fruits and vegetables like cauliflower improve student attendance, behavior, and academic success? Health studies say yes. Not only that, but not eating more fruits and vegetables is fueling the obesity epidemic. And that epidemic is costing Minnesota over $3 billion per year.

Enter the Minnesota Department of Health’s Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP). During the 2015-2016 academic year, SHIP gave five metro-area school districts a grant to promote produce consumption in their secondary schools.

The initiative involves monthly chef vegetable trainings, paired with Smarter Lunchroom Strategies in the cafeterias. The recipient districts are Anoka-Hennepin, Brooklyn Center, Hopkins, Osseo, and Robbinsdale. Together they comprise 18 secondary schools and a student demographic that experiences higher than average rates of poverty. (Elementary schools will be included in the grant during the 2016-2017 year.)

Hennepin County Public Health’s Health Promotion program is partnering with the schools to roll out SHIP’s Smarter Lunchrooms Strategies.

One strategy is to display fruits and vegetables more attractively – in decorative baskets or on black serving plates where the colors pop. Another strategy is naming convention. A “Chipotle Caesar cauliflower salad” sounds more appealing than, say, a “salad.”

And of course there’s the matter of preparing great recipes. That’s where school chef training comes in.

Today O’Brien and Hutchinson walk the kitchen, stopping to give school chefs advice like how fine to cut the cauliflower.

At the end of each session, chefs taste their creations, making notes about what could be tweaked next iteration.

Students are served healthy recipes
Produce colors stand out in black baskets
Students get to taste test new recipes
They served us broccoli with something sprinkled on it. It was SO good!
Jerrica Andrews, Robbinsdale Middle School student



A week before recipes like Chipotle Caesar cauliflower salad are rolled out in school cafeterias, students taste test them. Next to the taste testing table are “thumbs up” and a “thumbs down” trash cans. From that, and from talking to students, “You can get a general sense of where kids are moving and what kinds of flavors resonate with them,” Hutchinson says.

On a recent Friday, Dang Nguyen, a Robbinsdale Middle School student, stops to grab a taste testing sample. “One day a week, usually Saturday, I let myself eat whatever I want,” Nguyen says. “Like maybe a bunch of chips. But I eat a lot of good and healthy foods all the other days of the week. The food they serve here makes it easy to do that.”

While the work in schools is important, O’Brien says that parents ultimately set the foundation for healthy eating (taste preferences start at conception). But, creating that foundation does not have to be overwhelming.

“Parents feel like they have to convince their kids to like a particular food,” O’Brien says. Instead, he encourages parents to create a “non-threatening environment” around food and not to make a big deal if kids don’t like something.

He also encourages parents to involve kids in tasks like grocery shopping and cooking so they’re more invested. Ultimately, “it’s all about baby steps,” O’Brien stresses. “You don’t have to figure things out right away.”

Want to try some healthy recipes at home? Check out:

The Chef Marshall O’Brien website
Robbinsdale Area Schools website

Also: The Chef Marshall O’Brien Group’s Smart Nutrition workbook addresses the biggest obstacle to making changes that will help people live a healthier life - not knowing what to do or how to start. This workbook is a step-by-step guide to learning positive, energizing behaviors that will become the healthier lifestyle you want.


By: Lori Imsdahl

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