Serena Suthers was nervous during that snowstorm that blew through last week.
The director of school food and nutrition services for Prince William County Schools was expecting nearly 800 people for dinner Thursday night, and the snow days were threatening to derail the party.
The county hosted its 24th annual food show at Patriot High School, giving families a chance to taste — and give feedback on — 35 potential menu items for the 2014-15 school year. If school had been closed again Wednesday, Suthers said, they wouldn’t have been able to defrost and prepare all of the food they needed in time for the food show.
The two-hour delay Wednesday gave Suthers’s crew plenty of time to get ready for their dinner guests, who lined up 20 or more deep at some of the event’s nine tasting stations to sample foods including pizza and chocolate-covered banana bites.
“What a fun event,” said Christina Stephens, whose two children attend Gravely Elementary School. They have been coming to the food show since they moved to the county three years ago.
Tasting items included new chicken breast patties with whole-grain breading, to keep the county in compliance with regulations that stipulate that all grains offered in school meals must be whole-grain rich by July. There were pizza options, breakfast foods and a “super food” salad made with fresh kale.
That salad was a favorite of Stephens. Her daughter, Lily, 10, was a fan of the egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwich. Lily’s brother, Colter, 9, came to the show last year for the pizza, but this year he was trying everything, his mom said.
“Even the zucchini,” she said. “He liked it. I’m shocked.”
Suthers and her staff will tally the responses and begin incorporating some of the most popular items in next year’s menus.
“The menu-planning process is getting so complex we’ve got to start earlier and earlier every year,” Suthers said. “As soon as we get our results tabulated, we’ll start drafting sample menus. There might be some items that we don’t show tonight, that we haven’t seen yet. . . . We’ll also look at what happens tonight. People might say something that causes us to tweak a recipe or make it different.”
Michelle Taylor, whose children attend Stonewall Middle School and Bennett Elementary, has been coming to the food show for four years because she enjoys the opportunity to see what might be on the menu for her children next year.
Her daughter, Alina, 10, said she came for the free food. But son Jonathan, 13, said he likes having a say in what’s for lunch. He tried the shredded pork roast and gave it a thumbs up on his ballot.
One station offered Asian foods: Mongolian beef and two kinds of chicken lo mein, with a frozen strawberry lemon juice chaser. Another featured two types of pork barbecue, a frittata and roasted veggie sticks.
Suthers said she is looking for ways to expand the fresh fruits and vegetables offered. In addition to the kale salad and zucchini, there were glazed Brussels sprouts and a mixture of roasted root vegetables that included turnips.
“We are kind of going out on a limb on some of the vegetables,” said Katrine Rose, the county school system’s administrative coordinator for nutrition. “They’re not necessarily mainstream vegetables, so we’re kind of putting out feelers to see how kids like things like roasted vegetables.”