Menu Overhaulin’

I just graduated this spring from UW-Madison’s Dietetics program. For three years while I was in school, I worked for the Kids Center at the Madison Veterans Affairs Hospital. Back in February 2013, I was given the authority to completely revamp the menu at the VA Kids Center. You must understand that this decision was momentous! For the past seven years, the Kids Center had been operating with a menu inspired by the Great Depression era and pre-World War II rations. Mmmm, there’s nothing like a warm bowl of white rice for breakfast.

There was an incredible amount of eggs in these meals. Egg salad, fried eggs, boiled eggs, and scrambled eggs were the pièce de résistance! Let me tell you, these kids did not enjoy all these eggs with their meals, particularly menu items like egg salad.
The overwhelming majority of menu items lacked any creativity or zest. They were bland meals that you quickly threw together with little feeling – like buttered toast and sugar, eggs galore, and plain rice. The only meals I knew the children actually ate and enjoyed were the garlic toast, bagels and cream cheese, and mini muffins. Other parts of the menu were basic items of childhood snackdom that were re-incorporated into the new menu like cheese and crackers, graham crackers, as well as cereal with milk. So, the ability to revitalize this outdated menu was a welcome breeze of fresh air! It was also excellent experience for me as an aspiring dietitian.

Food Rules

I couldn’t change the menu to just anything, I had to work within several constraints. The new menu had to reflect USDA standards for the Child & Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). Meals must fit a certain nutritional profile and cost in order to be fully reimbursed by the USDA. So due to financial constraints I could not buy organic, specialty items, some brand name products or expensive out-of-season produce.
I had to follow some specific nutritional guidelines. Breakfasts must contain each of these three meal requirements:

  • A serving of plain milk (½c. for ages 1-2, and ¾ c. for ages 2-6)
  • One serving of fruit or vegetable (¼ c. for ages 1-2 and ½ c. for ages 2-6)
  • One serving of grains, preferable whole grains (½ slice of bread, ¼ cup cooked pasta, 2-3 crackers for ages 1-6).

Breakfasts may also contain a meat alternative, such as half an egg (ugh!), 2 oz. dairy, or 1/8 cup of nut or seed butters, but are not required to.
Snacks must contain at least two of these four food categories. But if milk is offered for the snack, you have to offer a non-beverage to compliment it, like crackers and cheese. You can’t just pour them milk and juice and call it a day!
Even with these requirements, there was still room for creativity. The variations are endless!
The menu had to accommodate other important issues as well. In order to maintain compliance with VA Kids Center rules, absolutely no peanuts and peanut butter and other common or known allergens were allowed in the center food. Certain children in the past had berry, tree nut, and soy allergies, so these were banished from the menu as the Kids Center adapted to new knowledge. Uncommon allergies (i.e. cherry allergy) are not removed from the menu, as long as the kitchen staff properly handles all materials and makes sure the affected child is not served that food or anything contaminated with it.

Granola review, source: At the Chalk Face

Finally, I wanted to add some cultural diversity to the menu. This is definitely not mandated by the USDA or the VA Kids Center, but it is something that is important to me and to the field of dietetics. The Kids Center had a culturally diverse group of children, ranging from American, Brazilian, North African, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian and Middle Eastern backgrounds, as a lot of parents are immigrants.
I tried my best to incorporate culturally diverse menu items while also keeping in mind nutrition, cost and food safety concerns.
As a perfect illustration of all of these concepts, one of the new menu items was for homemade granola. I paired this item with low-fat yogurt, fresh fruit and a serving of milk to meet nutritional standards. The granola could not contain nuts of any kind for allergen and financial reasons, and a lot of dried fruit options were very expensive, like dried blueberries. Dried cranberries could have been utilized, but the children found them too tart and unpleasant. So inspiration hit me one day, when I thought of dried, unsweetened coconut! (Did you know that coconut is a fruit?) It’s a fairly healthy addition to granola, inexpensive, pleasant to children, and not a common allergen. The children have given me two chubby thumbs up for this menu addition.

Kids don’t sugar-coat their feedback

For some menu items, I had to continually tweak them in order to meet the children’s unique taste preferences. For instance, the children did not like fresh onions nor de-seeded jalapeños in their salsa. So I simply omitted the jalapeño altogether and replaced fresh onions with dried onion flakes. Now the children load that salsa all over their quesadillas!
One of the trickier menu items was for oatmeal cookies. I tried several manufacturer recipes and recipes from websites, and none of them held up to the challenge of serving 25 children and adults at a day care center while staying intact for several hours until their snacktime. I tried the Quaker Oats recipe (I’m not picking on them in particular, just an example!), and the cookies fell apart too easily, called for too much sugar, and were generally not to the children’s liking. So, after some time and experimentation, I made very specific cookies that suited their tastes! This type of flexibility and creativity in working with children is absolutely essential, and I enjoyed making them happy and meeting their needs. One little girl told me early on that the cookies I made had “too many oats.” I almost fell over laughing at this one. Children do not mince words with their criticism, if they do not like something, they will let you know! I just pictured Emperor Joseph II from the movie Amadeus tasting my cookies and saying that!

25 Emperor Joseph II Jeffrey Jones
Too many Oats, Ariela. Just cut a few and it will be perfect!

The Recipes

Now I know some of you are thinking to yourselves, yeah yeah yeah, this all sounds good with the USDA and all, but where are these recipes?! I need to have what these kids are having! Okay, calm down and I will tell you my secret recipes.
Here are some popular recipes that the kids (and the adults) can’t get enough of! I hope you enjoy them, and if you are trying to find good things to make for kids, that they enjoy them too!

Oatmeal Cookies


  • 1 stick butter
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • ½ tsp. vanilla
  • ¾ cup flour
  • ½ tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • 1 ½ cups oats
  • ¾ cups raisins


  • 2 medium-size bowls
  • mixing spoons
  • baking sheets
  • spatula
  • measuring cups and spoons
  • parchment paper


  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Place butter in microwave on low heat to soften. In a medium bowl, beat butter, brown sugar, egg and vanilla until creamy and fully mixed.
  3. In another bowl, mix flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt; mix well.
  4. Add the two mixtures together until well mixed.
  5. Add oats and raisins and mix.
  6. Place rounded balls onto cookie sheets lined with parchment paper.
  7. Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until light golden brown. Cool 1 minute on cookie sheets and transfer to plastic baggies.

Homemade Granola


  • 2 cups oats
  • ¼ – ½ cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup dried unsweetened coconut
  • ½ cup raisins
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon
  • ¼ – ½ cup canola oil


  • medium-size bowl
  • mixing spoons
  • measuring cups and spoons
  • baking sheet
  • parchment paper


    1. Heat oven to 350 degrees.
    2. Add all ingredients to a medium bowl and mix well.
    3. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
    4. Bake for approx. 10 minutes, checking for golden brown color and crispy texture.



  • 2 cans garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
  • ¼ cup canola oil
  • 1 Tbsp. marinated garlic (or fresh)
  • 1 tsp. cumin
  • 1 lemon
  • salt
  • (optional: add ~1 tbsp tahini or to taste. I left this out due to expense and its strong flavor)


  • blender
  • mixing spoons
  • colander


  1. Drain the garbanzo beans in a colander.
  2. Place them in the blender.
  3. Add canola oil, garlic, cumin and salt. Squeeze lemon juice into blender, being careful to eliminate any lemon seeds from mixture.
  4. Blend well, using a spoon to incorporate the mixture fully.
  5. Adjust according to taste.