To-go frozen foods and cooking instructions. Schools prep to feed remote learners.

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Kristen Mueller said it was time to retire peanut butter and jelly from dozens of school lunch menus she dreams up daily.

“They had so much of that in the spring,” said Mueller, the chief dietician for Nutri-Serve, a food management company that provides meals for 87 school districts in New Jersey, from Princeton to Cape May. “We wanted an option for more variety.”

What emerged were five breakfast and lunch meals that could be distributed once a week, an especially popular choice for working parents at home with children receiving remote internet instruction. A “[email protected]” menu was also rolled out, featuring chicken nuggets, pizza, popcorn chicken and other items ready in less than 15 minutes in the oven or microwave.

Mueller said her team had to “think out of the box.” Literally.

“We came to work every day and wanted kids in the community to be fed,” Mueller said.

Nutri-serve and other food management companies that serve school districts in the state had to reinvent themselves on the fly when schools shut down in March as part of the coronavirus pandemic response.

“When we first started, we were just kind of throwing out ideas to see what would work,” said Chad Rockovits, a Nutri-Serve vice president. “We have it narrowed down. We know what works. We know how to package it. The whole logistics of serving the students we got down pat.”

Illene Ivy, Nutri-serve’s chief chef and corporate trainer, helped Mainland Regional High School deliver lunches door-to-door to students along its bus routes in the spring. That was the start overhauling the lunchroom and getting meals to students.

“People are scared,” Jo-Anne Goldberg, the district’s director of special education and a coordinator for the lunch delivery program, said then. “The structure that they need is coming to school every day. The structure is gone and that’s very traumatizing for many students.”

It’s not easy on food service workers, either.

“The biggest difference is not having the kids in the cafeteria,” Rockits said. “Just not seeing the children is the hard part. I’m still amazed cashiers know the names of every kid. Everybody is nervous. They’ve never come back to a school year like they are now.”

Some of the lunchroom workers have new assignments. They have to package food from bulk containers to individual servings. Rockits said one of the innovations they’ve come up with is using frozen bottles of water to help keep food cold until it reaches homes. The individual packets of food also have QR codes on them that reveal cooking instructions after a cellphone camera hovers over it.

Food service companies like Nutri-Serve have to prepare for a variety of options, including students in school several days a week, those attending half-days, or those opting for all-remote instruction.

State reopening guidelines call for “the seamless and continuous feeding of New Jersey’s approximate 1.4 million students during all phases of school reopening.”

So, until students and food workers are face to face again, many of their meals will include comfort food like French toast strips, pop tarts and mini cinnamon rolls, nestled with every USDA requirement for health school meals.

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Bill Duhart may be reached at [email protected]. Have a news tip or a story idea about New Jersey schools? Send it here.