NEW BRUNSWICK — Not just any chicken nugget will suffice when it comes to feeding your kid at lunchtime.

Working well ahead of the 2017-2018 school year, representatives from hundreds of New Jersey school districts flocked Wednesday to the Hyatt Regency, where more than 50 vendors were offering taste tests of the foods they have available for order.

The event, presented by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, featured foods that fall in line with National School Lunch Program meal pattern requirements. Many vendors offered healthy spins on classic cafeteria items such as pizza and french fries. Others, who've been serving New Jersey districts for years, came to the table with new offerings such as international cuisine and packaged meals to go.

"The foods that they're sampling are all going to be lower in fat, lower in sodium, whole grain, and schools are now basing menus on calorie requirements that are age and grade-appropriate," said Rose Tricario, director of NJDA's Division of Food and Nutrition. "This is just allowing the schools to have a little bit of variety, try something new, and really keep the children interested in these healthier choices."

Dino Flammia, Townsquare Media NJ

Attendants also had the opportunity to sign up for direct delivery of fresh produce to their districts.

According to Thomas Beck, food service director with Egg Harbor Township schools, vendors have "come a long way" in adapting lunchtime favorites, such as chicken nuggets, to keep up with nutritional guidelines.

"We have to go whole grain now ... Children don't really know the difference, and we know that they're getting a healthy meal everyday," Beck said.

Dino Flammia, Townsquare Media NJ

Anthony Dragona, school business administrator for Union City, said the food they serve in school needs to be appealing to students, not just nutritious.

"The advantage of this aspect of the conference is that we see how different purveyors are able to present to the school districts good quality, good tasting, maybe trendy processing of the raw commodities into a deliverable product," Dragona said.

As northeast regional manager for Tasty Brands, Teisha Robertson aimed to extend the brand's presence in Garden State schools. She had more than a dozen samples up for grabs, including pizza bagels, cheesy breadsticks and wraps.

"We've made the best of what we've been able to work with, reformulating staples like onion rings and making them whole grain," she said. "Making them taste good for the kids - that's a primary focus for everyone, I think."

Despite guidelines in place for nutritional elements such as fats and sodium, Charles Feldman, an associate professor of nutrition and food studies at Montclair State University, said he was still "very disturbed" by the food he saw on display at the tasting event.

According to Feldman, the food remains "highly processed" and more guidelines are needed in order to restrict flavor additives and other ingredients.

"The healthiest foods are the least processed foods," he said.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.