As assistant director of food service in the Trumbull school system, Laurie Stolba prepares meals as if her own children will be eating them. Because they do.

“Every kid should feel like someone took the time to prepare their food personally,” Stolba said. “They aren’t just being passed through a line.”

Stolba and Betty Sinko, food service director, are planning a series of “thank you” surprises for the 50 school lunch employees next week in recognition of National Food Service Appreciation Week. Sinko, who has 40 years in the business, said the program has come a long way from the days of the stereotypical lunch lady ladling mystery meat onto students’ plates.

“Now, nearly everything is made from scratch, right in the school,” Sinko said. “Even the deli sandwiches are made with meat and cheese sliced fresh that day.”

Trumbull Food Services feeds up to 7,000 students each day in nine schools, but the process is invisible to most people. It begins much like a household dinner does, with menu planning and shopping for ingredients.

“We enjoy the creativity that comes with the job,” Sinko said. “Much thought and deliberation goes into creating the menus for the students.”

Planning the school menu includes gathering ideas, and weighing the suggestions and student feedback against the equipment’s capacity, availability of food, and cost. Each meal sells for $3 or less, and Food Services is a self-sustaining department that receives no funds from the Board of Education.

“Even a single recipe demands thorough consideration,” Sinko said. “Researching ideas and sourcing food products for that recipe takes up a large part of designing a menu.”

Recipes are also reviewed for nutritional value, since school meals must meet state and federal standards for calories, fat content,

The dining scene may still contain classic staples like burgers and school-made pizza, but it has also evolved to include many more types of cuisines and ethnic food experiences than in the past, Sinko said.

Students are also encouraged to try new foods, and sometimes the novelty of a new culinary experience goes all the way to the top.

“Students today put Sriracha sauce on everything,” Sinko said. So after ordering a supply, Sinko said she gave it a taste test, sampling the chili pepper-based condiment directly from the packet, with eye-watering results.

Still, Sinko said, the experience helped her stay on top of food trends, and was a valuable experience in preparing a menu that the students would enjoy.

“The world has grown smaller in terms of culinary experiences,” she said. “Students have been exposed to more different types of food than in the past. What was once weird and strange a few years back is commonplace today.”