Happy Meal

AmTab’s cafeteria design for EDspaces contains all the right ingredients. (Read sidebar below.)
by Tina Manzer


If the phrase “school cafeteria” conjures up images of concrete walls, grubby folding chairs, and overflowing garbage cans, you should see the latest lunchroom designs from vendors in our industry. They reveal positive, inspiring spaces that encourage collaboration, interaction and healthy eating habits.

During EDspaces, three different school cafeterias – “cafés” – will be serving lunch for attendees on Wednesday, October 23 and Thursday, October 24. Each one was designed by an innovative vendor:

  • Boxlight, a provider of easy-to-use educational technology, including an interactive flat-panel display;
  • Palmer Hamilton, a company that designs and produces dining, library and collaborative spaces for the K-12
    environment; and
  • AmTab, a 60-year-old American firm that manufactures mobile and stationary folding tables and chairs.

A place to develop valuable skills

Today’s designers and educators are retooling cafeterias to meet a range of learning goals, from developing kids’ social skills to teaching them good food choices.

The physical environment sets the stage for skill development, say members of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). “Design the cafeteria to look more like a café, with décor that promotes healthy eating,” they recommend. “Make it inviting, clean, and free of clutter.”

Lunchtime is a naturally occurring, nonacademic time of day for social and emotional learning, the AOTA points out.

“It’s a great place for meaningful activities, including play, social participation, and tasks of daily living. In elementary school, especially, it’s among the best places to model and teach social interaction and behavior. Learning these skills in the early grades can help prevent disruptive behaviors later.”

The website School Leaders Now concurs. “Each activity, like socializing or the lunch line, mirrors real-world interactions students will experience in their personal and professional lives. Posted rules and lunchroom expectations help make school lunch an opportunity for inclusion and life-skill education for all students.”


AmTab’s cafeteria design for EDspaces

• Casters on the furniture increase the room’s versatility. Tables, chairs, and booths can be moved and rearranged. The layout easily changes from daily casual dining to something more formal and open.

• The furniture folds up. Pieces can be neatly stored away to repurpose the entire space for other occasions.

• Seating heights, table styles and sizes vary. It helps the room look more like a restaurant, and reminds students to be on their best behavior.

• Comfortable booth benches encourage students to linger and finish their meal.

• Warm and darker colors. They prevent the cafeteria from feeling vast and impersonal.

• Color customization opportunities. Selecting school colors and adding logos, mascots or mottos to surfaces provide positive energy, strengthen student pride, and create a feeling of belonging.

• Booths and smaller table choices encourage small group interaction.


A place to enjoy healthy food

The physical environment also influences healthy eating. In 2018, Kim Rollings, assistant professor of architecture and psychology at Notre Dame; and Nancy Wells, professor of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University, published a study, “Cafeteria Assessment for Elementary Schools (CAFES).” Its goal was to show that even small changes to cafeteria design can get kids to eat healthier.

After assessing four different physical categories of elementary-school cafeterias – the room, the table/display, the plate, and the food – and scoring subcategories like “environment, appearance, windows, layout” and furniture, availability, serving method,” CAFES generated a list of improvements. They included updating interior design;
creating attractive serving displays and seating areas; and selecting appropriately-sized serving trays, plates, and bowls relative to desired portion sizes. 

“Research suggests that physical attributes of a school cafeteria, including design, display, and layout at multiple environmental scales can affect meal choices, especially when students are faced with long lines and short meal times,” concludes Rollings. “Attractive cafeteria design that limits noise and crowding, has bright lighting and provides adequate food storage and preparation space, is linked to healthier eating choices.”

Google and schools look for the same results

For its employees, Google’s Mountain View, California, campus features hundreds of pantries stocked with snacks and beverages, and more than 35 “canteens” that serve free, freshly cooked meals. All of them have been specifically engineered to encourage healthy eating, notes thedailymeal.com. Treats are hidden in the back, and healthy options are displayed front and center. Meals are served on miniature dishware, and foods are labeled to indicate how often they should be eaten.

Like school cafeterias, Google’s canteens and pantries are meant to keep diners happy and healthy over a long day.

“Tables for seven to eight as opposed to 40 are intended to provide the right  climate for offhand brilliance,” notes an article in Forbes. “‘The cafeterias are designed to make food social rather than fast,’ noted Jennifer Kokowski, one of Google’s in-house social scientists. ‘We recognize that innovation requires serendipity, and the lunchroom is the best place for that.’”

To see school cafeterias designed to encourage offhand brilliance, sign up for EDspaces at ed-spaces.com.

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