Meet a Chef: Brenda Wattles
Chef Brenda Wattles
Child Nutrition Culinary Expert
Q: What is your background?
A: I’m a chef, a dietitian, and a menu planning and recipe development consultant for K-12 schools. I also consult with food brands and commodity boards on their K-12 marketing programs. I’ve been working on child nutrition programs for over 10 years.
Q: Is there a fit for canned pears in to-go and pre-packaged items?
A: Absolutely! Students of all ages enjoy the taste of this familiar canned fruit. At the school district that I’m consulting for now we are finding that canned pears are not only versatile as an ingredient, but they pair well as a side dish with any entrée. And with the current unexpected ingredient shortages that require us to pivot and change up our entrée and snack menus quickly, canned pears save time and help us manage labor. For example, canned pears are a go-to fruit for our afternoon snack program because they go well with yogurt, string cheese, granola, and milk for those pre-packaged snacks.
Q: Do you find that canned pears are a good fit in savory menu items?
A: Yes, canned pears complement savory ingredients in all types of sandwiches, wraps, flatbreads, and bowls with a subtle sweetness.
Right now, I am working on how to handle the predicted higher cost of brown sugar, so we are testing ways to use the juice from canned pears and other canned fruit to add subtle sweetness to entrees. I’ve been working with U.S. grown canned pears for a few years and am familiar with how versatile the juice can be in hot and cold sauces, dressings, baked goods, beverages.
For our high school menus, canned pears are popular in grab-and-go salads and incorporated into wraps. For the older students we offer a build-your-own bento box meal that includes canned pears and it’s very popular. There’s just not enough time to develop new menu items right now, but we are working on a build-your-own burrito “bento” style, and students can choose canned pears as a filling for their burrito or as a side.
Q: What are a few things people should remember about U.S. grown canned pears?
U.S. grown canned pears are available year-round to K-12 schools through the USDA Direct Delivery Brown Box program or distributors.
Q: Are pears one of your favorite fruits?
A: Yes, and in addition to enjoying local pears when they are in season, I look to U.S. grown canned Bartlett pears that are available year round for menus at home and at work. Pacific Northwest Bartlett pears are canned at the peak of ripeness so they are always full of natural pear flavor.
Q: Are canned pears a nourishing option for K-12 menus?
A: With the task to offer nourishing options that appeal to kids, parents, and schools alike, it’s easy to include canned pears on the menu. Canned pears are convenient and they are always available, so there isn’t a question about seasonality and cost. Serving canned pears helps kids get their recommended servings of fruit for less than 100 calories per half cup.
One of my favorite ways to get an extra serving of fruit on the menu is in smoothies, by simply adding canned pears. Canned Bartlett pears add subtle flavor and body to a smoothie along with their naturally sweet pear flavor. They can stand alone as a satisfying smooth with a little cinnamon or paired with another fruit.
Q: Is everyone looking ahead to the less stressful days post covid when they can get more creative with menus?
A: Absolutely! From my experience, most if not all K-12 menu teams are looking forward to getting back to offering more and new menu options that engage students.
There will always be a place for go-to comfort foods, such as warm pears with cinnamon, pear crisp, pear oat bars, and a side of perfectly ripe canned pears. But global flavors are popular across all age groups, and canned pears are a natural fit for Asian and Latin cuisine, especially as students are able to try dishes with these flavors at restaurants.
More school are learning how to use their canned pears in recipes like Bahn mi wraps, savory flatbreads, breakfast wraps, salads, rice bowls, and toppings like salsa for tacos. We are also learning how to use more culinary techniques, like grilling and caramelizing canned pears to bring out flavors that kids like.
School menu teams are tasked with balancing the nutritional needs of children with the kinds of foods kids will eat. Fortunately, canned Bartlett pears have a great flavor profile that works well in kid-friendly cuisine.