University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Cycle menus offer big benefits for school nutrition programs

Calendar with arrows to indicate a cycle

Menu planning can be a real challenge, especially if you’re writing menus on a month to month basis. Why consider transitioning to cycle menus?

Cycle menus can help cut down on time spent placing food orders and checking deliveries. You may qualify for volume discounts for buying larger amounts of the same items. Plus, students like familiarity and look forward to favorites being repeated in a predictable way. This can increase meal participation and revenue to the program.

So how would you transition from monthly planning to a cycle system?

1. First, consider the length of cycle. Shorter cycles can be time-efficient and cost-saving, but meal repetition becomes a concern. We recommend 5- or 6-week cycles, which are still financially beneficial but include more variety. Year-round favorites can still appear regularly, but you can also include more seasonal items like soups and salad.

2. The next step is to identify popular items to keep serving. Then, think about how to use USDA commodities. Think about multiple ways to use fresh fruits and vegetables. For example, cucumbers could be added to salads, sliced and served with dip, used as a filler for sandwiches, and so on. Ideally, put these relatively close together during the cycle so the cucumbers are used before quality goes down. If you’ll be trying more scratch-made recipes, minimize the labor impact by prepping on Mondays and Tuesdays and serving scratch items later in the week.

3. Of course, make sure you check that your menus meet daily and weekly school nutrition requirements and tweak as needed.

Although it may take some work on the front end, implementing a cycle menu has real benefits for food service programs operating on tight budgets!

If you’re not sure where to start, check out these cycle menu examples and recipes! You can adapt these or use as a guide to create your own.