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The 4 Step Path to Building a Smarter Lunchroom

The 4 steps to building a Smarter Lunchroom provides a easy to follow path to ensure the cafeteria environment supports students in selecting and eating the healthiest foods available at school.  

Smarter Lunchrooms Movement Flyer 

Summary of the 4 Step Path

4 Step Path - SpotStep 1: Spot!

Are you and your team getting ready to become a Smarter Lunchroom?  Excellent!  Before you make any changes, take a close look at your cafeteria to spot what changes you need to make.

It is important to know where your lunchroom stands before any changes are made, in order to later determine how things have changed. The information you gather before you begin will vary by school. Pick and choose the methods that work for you.

Ways to Spot changes you may want to make:

  • Complete the Smarter Lunchroom Scorecard
  • Take Photographs

Complete the Smarter Lunchroom Scorecard

Before you make any changes, complete a Smarter Lunchroom Scorecard!  The Smarter Lunchrooms Scorecard is a list of 60 strategies that can be easily incorporated into the lunchroom.  Completing a Scorecard will uncover what the school is already doing to be a Smarter Lunchroom and will clearly identify the areas that can be focused on next.  

  1. Completing the Scorecard:
    • Record date, school, and name of person completing the Scorecard.
    • Review each Scorecard item before beginning.
    • Get started at least 20 minutes before students arrive for lunch.  Look at the lunchroom with fresh eyes. Take notice of the entrances and exits.  Identify the serving and dining areas. Notice where the trash, tray return, and recycling bins are located. Pay attention to any decorations on the walls, tables, or service lines.
    • Before the students come walk through the lunchroom following the same path they use.  Look around attentively, smell the air, and try to get a sense of the students’ experience in the space.  Walk through again, this time making a check mark in the box beside each item on the Scorecard that you observe. Write any additional  notes in the margin.
    • Watch as students enter the cafeteria.  Continue to make observations about the items on the Scorecard and check off items that you see.
    • Continue to observe while the first lunch period ends.  Note how the serving area is cleaned and replenished for the next period.  
    • Use the second lunch period to continue observing and checking off items on the Scorecard.  
    • Review the Scorecard one more time to make sure you have checked off everything you have observed. You may need to check in with other school nutrition staff, teachers, or administration to confirm if all statements on the Scorecard appropriately reflect the school.  
    • Tally the check marks and write the total score.

This total score is your baseline.  It’s your starting point.  Everything you didn’t check off is a strategy to think about for the future.

TIP: Engage others! Are other people always asking about your cafeteria? Wanting to make changes or always offering suggestions?  Pull them in the loop! Invite other key stakeholders to complete the Scorecard with you or for you.  It’s a great discussion starter and relationship builder.

Examples of people to ask to complete a Scorecard include:

  • School Nutrition Director
  • School administrator
  • Lunchroom staff member
  • Teacher or other school staff member
  • Parent (or PTA member)
  • Student (student council member)

Give each person the Scorecard ahead of time so they can read it and ask any questions before they begin.  The observation period goes by quickly so, before they start, help them  become familiar with the Scorecard so they can spend most of the observation period looking at the lunchroom, not searching for items on the Scorecard! If more than one person completes the Scorecard, be sure to resolve any discrepancies.  You may need another observation period or may need a conversation with an administrator or director to work out any differences in results.  Ultimately, there should be only one baseline score that everyone agrees on.

Take Photographs 

  1. Take photographs during the observation.  If possible, have teams of two observers go through the lunchroom together: one will complete the Scorecard while the other takes photographs.

    • Plan to take 25-30 photos.
    • Take photographs when food is on the line.
    • Make sure to take them from students' eye level, especially in elementary schools.
    • For legal reasons, avoid photographing students or collect signed consent forms. Ask before photographing adults.

Key items and locations to photograph:

  • Overall view of area, ‘first glance’
  • Hot food serving area
  • Cold food serving area
  • Any decorations, signs, or posters
  • Posted menus or promotions
  • Wall space – used or unused
  • Lighting
  • Walls, especially where students line up
  • Registers and surrounding view
  • Milk serving area
  • Tray storage
  • Cutlery storage
  • Condiments
  • Salad bar
  • Beverage coolers – open and closed
  • Ice cream cooler – open and closed
  • Trash, compost, and recycling areas
  • Tray return
  • Cleaning items – mops, brooms, buckets, cloths, if visible to students

2. Make a folder for the photos.  Label each with location (Smith Elementary School), description (tray storage; salad bar), and date.  Put the photos into a slide presentation for a group review.

3. Get a group together to review the photos. The group may include school meals staff, administration, parents, students, or other stakeholders.  What looks great?  Where is there room for improvement? Take notes.

Some schools may want to use production records, sales records, or plate waste data to help identify changes to make. For more information, see the Smarter Lunchrooms website.

4 Step Path - PlanStep 2: Plan!

Once you have completed the Scorecard and reviewed the photos, it’s time to move on to step 2: Plan!

To develop your Smarter Lunchroom Action Plan:

  1. Review your Smarter Lunchroom Scorecard results and  closely examine the photos of the lunchroom.  
  2. Choose 3-5 Smarter Lunchroom Strategies to try.
  3. Create a plan for each strategy like in the example shown below

Example Completed Smarter Lunchroom Action Plan

Focus Area
Smarter Lunchroom Strategy
Permission Needed? Whose? 
Person Responsible 
Due By
Fruit Fruit is offered in at least two locations on all service lines, one of which is right before the point of sale. Yes, Sally, School Nutrition Director Purchase a colorful bowl to put bananas and oranges in. Place next to cash register daily. Kathy, manager 9/1/17

Download Blank Action Plan

4 Step Path - DoStep 3: Do!

You have spotted what needs to be done by completing a Smarter Lunchroom Scorecard and taking a close look at the photos of the lunchroom.  You’ve taken the time to build a plan, so NOW is the time to Do it!

  1. Be sure everyone on the lunchroom staff is aware of the changes that are going to be made.  Give them a chance to ask questions and offer suggestions to the plan, it  helps create buy-in.
  2. If the change is big, such as only accepting cash for a la carte options, go back and make sure communication and training is a part of your plan!
  3. Make the changes!
    • Small changes can be made overnight or over the weekend.
    • Larger changes are better made over the summer or after a vacation.

4 Step Path - ProveStep 4: Prove!

Now it’s time to evaluate the impact of the changes.  You spotted what needed to change, you made a plan, and you did it!  It’s time to show off the improvements!  



1. Complete a new Smarter Lunchroom Scorecard

  • Get your new Smarter Lunchroom score by repeating the instructions in Step 1 on how to complete the Scorecard.

2. Take your after-photos

  • A picture is worth a thousand words. Take photos of the areas that changes. Try to take them from the same location/angle as your pre-photos, to make comparisons easy.
  • Date, label and save your photos.

After all the planning and doing, your Smarter Lunchroom Scorecard score increased and your photos visually show your improvements. Give yourself and your staff a pat on the back. The lunchroom now uses evidence-based research to help ‘nudge’ kids to make healthy choices. Share your successes with school administration and parents!

Keep up the great work!