TAMPA — Three students from the Ferrell Girls Preparatory Academy took eager bites of Southwestern veggie burgers and compared notes.
Camila Santana, 11, liked the burger, but it was a little too sloppy, she said.
Corinne Sharpe, 12, and DhaMonique Sanders, 11, both shook their heads.
"I hate the middle," Sanders said, "but the lettuce was good."
They all agreed the spicy chicken tenders a few tables away deserved an A+.
The students were among 200 from 15 Hillsborough County schools at TPepin's Hospitality Centre on Wednesday for the fourth annual Fresh Flavors student food-tasting, hosted by the district's Student Nutrition Services Department. Students tasted and rated about 25 new dishes. Some will end up on school menus next year.
They tried familiar foods, such as cheese ravioli and yogurt tubes. But they also tried new things, such as Mongolian beef with stir-fry brown rice.
Before the tasting began, Mary Kate Harrison, general manager of Student Nutrition Services, encouraged the students to be adventurous.
"How many of you have heard your mothers say you should try it, you might like it?" she asked from a microphone at the front of the room. Most of the students shot a hand up.
Because of feedback from previous years, Hillsborough lunchrooms are offering more spicy foods and hot sauce packets. They've found that kids like to dip things, and they'll eat more raw vegetables if they're served with yogurt dip.
"They are our customers. We have to treat them like customers," Harrison said. "I can do the best food in the world, but if they don't sample it and they don't want it, it ends up in the trash can."
There's a big push right now to get more whole grains in schools, said nutrition specialist Heather Wellings. Like Harrison, she wants to see less food go to waste.
"We're trying to find exciting new vegetables they will pick up and not throw in the trash, so we're not just serving the same potatoes every day," she said.
About 200,000 meals a day are served in the district's 215 schools, including breakfast and lunch. A few schools also offer dinner and salad bars. Officials plan to continue expanding dinner and the salad bars, plus a new made-to-order sandwich bar, to a few schools at a time.