PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. -- If you think it's uncool to buy your lunch at school, you probably haven't stepped inside one of the new dining facilities inside Palm Beach County schools.
Out are the old institutional cafeterias where fried chicken, mashed potatoes and peas are doled out in assembly line fashion. They are being replaced by stylishly decorated eateries resembling upscale mall food courts that offer lots of tasty options.
When students return Monday for the first day of school, those at Atlantic High in Delray Beach and John F. Kennedy Middle in Riviera Beach will experience what food service officials predict will be the future of school dining.
"The new design of the food lines and cafeteria creates a more inviting atmosphere for the students, while at the same time we offer them healthy and nutritious snacks and meals," said Heidi Schwab, school food service field specialist.
Atlantic High doesn't even like to use the term school cafeteria anymore, after the opening of Café Atlantic last school year. The dining facility contains five eateries, some with rotating menus and others with consistent offerings. All have big neon signs advertising their distinctive brands: Asian Xperience, Café Sol y Mar (Spanish) Mangia Mangia (Italian), Atlantic Gourmet Deli and Beyond Burgers.
A similar facility, Viking Den, will open Monday at John F. Kennedy. It features four eateries: Asian Xperience, Café Sol y Mar, Beyond Burgers and HomeStyle, which offers healthy versions of comfort foods, such as Beefaroni and pizza.
The multi-restaurant design lessens the time students must wait in line, school officials said. And the schools have agreed to designate 35 minutes for lunch, longer than most schools, so kids aren't rushed.
Atlantic High student A.J. Puente was surprised when he first saw the dining facility last year, which also includes improved seating and four flat-screen TVs.
"It's really nice and laid back," he said.. "The food's really good."
About 70 percent of students chose to buy their lunch during 2011-12 school year, up from 52 percent the year before. Lunch sales increased by 257 meals a day. Breakfast participation has also soared, said Steve Bonino, the district's food services director.
More schools will be going this route in the near future, Bonino said. Schools built in recent years have cafeterias that that can easily be converted.
Even in schools with more traditional cafeterias, menus have been overhauled. Deep fryers are gone. So are white bread, milkshakes and high sugar desserts.
But you will find plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Studies have shown a correlation between student nutrition and performance in school.
"We're hoping school food service will have a small part in the academic success of our students," Bonino said.
Staff writer Marc Freeman contributed to this report.