According to recent census results, public school attendance rates have been increasing steadily since the turn of the millennium. As such, school kitchens are beginning to build and expand to support ever growing numbers of incoming students. With many students relying on the school cafeteria for their daily lunch, it is important that public schools be well-equipped to provide a variety of nutritious and sustaining foods to their students. However, because school kitchens differ from restaurants in that they are not necessarily profit or marketing oriented, the equipment requirements can often be somewhat different from typical commercial kitchens.
Although most standard commercial cooking equipment can certainly be used in a school kitchen, the large number of students being fed each day may ultimately make using conventional ranges and ovens an impractical decision. Combination ovens (sometimes called “combi” ovens) are a great way to save space in cramped kitchens without sacrificing cooking power. Combination ovens can act as either a convection oven or as a steamer, making them ideal for quickly cooking everything from meats to casseroles to vegetables, all from the same unit. Some combi ovens are even capable of both heating and steaming at the same time: a great option for retaining the moisture in foods that are prone to drying out in the oven.
Traditional commercial ranges, while ideal for the less predictable, cook-to-order nature of the restaurant environment, are usually too small to be effective in school kitchens. Although they can be useful, their limited cooking space is often not quick or spacious enough to keep up with a constant stream of students. For most foods being cooked in a typical elementary, middle, or high school, a braising pan (sometimes called a “tilt skillet”) is more efficient and effective than a standard range. Braising pans can be used to braise, boil, fry, steam, poach, and griddle cook various food items, and they can do so in large quantities. This versatility likely makes the braising pan a more economical and useful choice than a standard range when cooking large amounts of food for school lunches. Ranges can still be useful, though, particularly for preparing soups or sauces, or for preparing quicker meals—such as sausage and egg biscuits for the portion of students that make it in early enough for school breakfast—for smaller groups of students.
Refrigeration in a school kitchen is largely the same as any other professional kitchen. Large, spacious, and reliable commercial refrigerators are a must in any foodservice establishment, especially in large cafeterias that are likely to carry sizeable quantities of frozen or reusable multi-purpose ingredients. One, two, and three section refrigeration units are available to match your cold storage needs. Smaller kitchens that are pressed for space may be able to save room by fitting smaller (but equally effective) undercounter refrigeration units beneath their countertops or worktables. Milk coolers are also a popular item among schools, as they are specially designed with large interiors to hold entire crates of half-pint milk cartons and keep them chilled (via air curtain technology) even while the cooler lids are completely open.
Once the food has been cooked, it of course has to be served. Most schools turn to cafeteria or buffet-style steam tables to keep the food warm throughout serving. Many schools offer their students a few choices in their meal, and setting up a cafeteria-style steam table food line is a great way to show students what is on the day’s menu. Naturally, not all of the food that is prepared will make it immediately to the serving table. Holding cabinets and countertop warming drawers are both great ways to keep food warm while it waits to be moved to the serving area.
One of the more obvious differences between a school cafeteria and a restaurant dining room is the tableware. Because of the sheer volume of people being served in a school lunchroom, plastic trays, cups, and tableware are a shoe-in as a more budget-friendly solution than traditional tableware. The iconic sectioned tray of the school lunchroom is not only durable and economical, but it also helps increase efficiency at the serving line, as the sections allow for much quicker portioning and serving. In any cafeteria, it is important to maintain a constant supply of clean trays, dishes, and utensils. One of the quickest and easiest ways to do this is with a conveyer dishwasher. Conveyor dishwashers are exceptionally easy to load (simply load your dish racks into one end and come back later to retrieve the from the other end) and will speed up the dish washing process by a significant margin, making them ideal for quickly cleaning your lunchroom tableware for the next round of students.
When planning your kitchen, it can be easy to get caught up in the large equipment and forget about the small stuff, but smallwares are still crucial to the successful operation of your kitchen. Without the small stuff, the large equipment is not truly functional. Be sure to order plenty of tools and cookware for your kitchen: ladles , can openers, kitchen cutlery, serving spoons, food pans , stock pots, spatulas , and so on. Even the highest quality restaurant equipment is useless if your kitchen is not adequately outfitted with appropriate cooking tools, so make sure to talk with your kitchen staff and find out what sorts of items that they will need to keep things running smoothly.
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