LIMESTONE, Maine — The dining staff who cook up meals for students and faculty at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics and the Limestone Community School, recently received honorable mention in a nationwide competition for their efforts in incorporating whole grains into the menu.

While the culinary crew fell just shy of winning the 2010 Whole Grains Challenge, the sponsoring Whole Grains Council felt they displayed so much creativity that they deserved special recognition in the K-12 Public Schools Division.

One of the “secret” healthful ingredients that the staff has successfully introduced into the students’ meals is the whole grain quinoa, (pronounced ki-nwa) which is grown for its edible seeds, according to Jeffrey Smith, director of dining services at the Limestone schools. Food services at the schools are provided by Flik Independent Schools.

Smith said the kitchen crew has found that quinoa can be added to a variety of dishes such as rice without creating a noticeable difference in taste or texture.

Smith and his staff use a blend of whole grains (that includes quinoa) because “it takes on the taste of whatever we put it into,” he said.

Anytime the cooks think they can sneak some healthful whole grains into a menu item, in goes quinoa or barley. The kitchen staff shake the menu up by altering standard recipes, he said. Instead of using garbanzo beans in the hummus, for example, Smith said the staff would make black bean hummus. To entice students to enjoy yogurt and granola, they’ll add some enticing M&Ms.

Because all the cooking at the schools is done from scratch, the cooks have been able to make popular dishes more healthful, such as serving pizza with a whole grain crust and offering more wheat bread. Smith said he isn’t even certain that students have noticed the difference in the pizza crust.

“The hard part is getting students to try new things,” Smith said, and most parents are sure to understand his challenge.

Some of the menu-changing ideas are health-conscious in more ways than one. The school has gone nut-free, for instance, to better serve students with nut allergies.

Instead of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, students are given SunButter — a peanut butter alternative made from sunflower seeds. The switch wasn’t the easiest, as kids tend to covet their PB ’n’ J, but the 320 Limestone Community School students and the 118 MSSM students seem to be coming around to the SunButter, Smith said.

Regarding the honorable mention in the Whole Grains Council competition, Smith said, “It’s nice to be recognized. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes.”