Meet Rylan Jeffries, a former junior softball Olympian and the beloved Food Service Director of River Oaks Baptist School in Houston.
How did you get into cooking?
My husband—who’s also a SAGE Food Service Director, incidentally—is the reason I got into cooking. I was 21 at the time, and when he came over to my apartment, there was really no food in the house. Somehow he managed to put together this crazy casserole with chicken, cheese, olives, and cornichons. If he made this thing today, I’m pretty sure we’d both be disgusted, but at the time, it tasted really good. And I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, you can be really creative with food. I wish I knew how to do something like that.” A few years later, I went to culinary school at The Art Institute of Houston.
Fast forward to now, I’m married to the same man who’s also a trained chef. We have a running joke in our house—if a dish needs something, we say, “Oh, it just needs some cornichons!”
What are the most challenging, and the most rewarding, parts of your job?
The most challenging part is making a healthy lunch menu that’s also kid-friendly, [and] the most rewarding part is seeing them make those healthy decisions on their own after a while. They also start to get more adventurous. You get one kid at a table to try something new and like it, and it’s a domino effect.
Parents will come up to me and say, “Thank you for getting my child to eat edamame for the first time.” Or, “My child doesn’t eat grilled cheese at home, but [he loves] yours.” That’s rewarding to me.
Do you have any tips for getting kids to eat their veggies?
Kids don’t like a lot of fuss. They like straightforward food. Whenever I steam a very familiar vegetable—broccoli, edamame, green beans, cauliflower—they’ll eat it. The same goes with meat—the less sauce, [the better].
I engage with the kids throughout the entire service, especially the younger ones. I don’t stand in the front of the line and tell them, “Eat your veggies; eat your fruits.” I tell them, “I want to see color.” It’s a better way to encourage them to make great decisions.
I also put things in little-bitty cups. I put out cut-up fruit every day. Sometimes I’ll put out yogurt, raw carrots with hummus, little cups of salad. It’s just another way for them to choose something healthy, and they like it in the little cups.
For the first grade, I go around with a tray of protein in soup bowls. They won’t necessarily put it on their tray, but if I bring it around in soup bowls, they’ll eat it. I don’t know why, but it works.
What’s your favorite memory of your time with SAGE at ROBS?
Last year, I brought a bunch of strange-looking or unfamiliar vegetables—snow peas, avocados, radishes, [things] like that—to the preschool classroom. These 3- and 4-year-olds were super interested in seeing, feeling, tasting, and smelling [the vegetables]. I had a lot of fun.
What makes working for SAGE special?
Every venue is unique. That’s what makes SAGE different from everybody else. You really get to take ownership. I get to tap into what works here, with the community I’ve gotten to know. I love it, because this is my school; this is my menu that I wrote specifically for my community. No other school has it.
What is a fun fact about you?
I went to the junior Olympics for softball. It’s been a long time since I played, but I’m pretty sure it’s just like riding a bike. I used to live and breathe softball. I went all over the United States playing.
Want more of Chef Rylan? ROBS parents talk about the impact she makes every day:
"My second grader eats more vegetables at school than she does at home—and that’s a lot! Thank you, Chef Rylan, for the delicious and well-balanced meals you make for our kids. Keep up the great work!" -Allison
"A lunchroom leader who cares! Chef Rylan listens to parents, has energy, is filled with good ideas, and truly cares about students’ health and wellbeing! Making the world a better place one bite at a time." -Angela
"Chef Rylan is a beloved member of the ROBS family! With an engaging, upbeat, and fun attitude, she connects with the students and encourages a love of healthy and delicious food. Under her leadership, SAGE prepares delicious foods that the children (and parents) love.” -Chelsea