Jaclyn Hannas

By Gretchen Eichenberg

Championing a healthy balance

If you’re one of hundreds of Wacoans who are inevitably trying to reset their health and wellness this month, you might think a registered dietitian exists to steal the joy from every bite that goes into your mouth. But Jaclyn Hannas, district dietitian for Midway ISD, looks at food as fuel for both the body and soul. She passionately believes we should enjoy nourishing ourselves. Here, she talks about how memories, emotions, community- and friendship-building often happen at the table — and she also hails the school cafeteria “lunch ladies” the unsung heroes of any educational institution.

WACOAN: Tell me about your job and your background.

Hannas: I am the district dietitian for Midway ISD. I technically work for Aramark, and Midway contracts my services out. I have a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in nutrition from Baylor University, a master’s in nutrition sciences from Baylor University, and I am a licensed and registered dietitian (MS, RD, LD).

WACOAN: When did you first become interested in nutrition?

Hannas: Well, I started my college experience on the ‘pre-health’ track, so I knew I wanted to have a career in some type of health or medical field but wasn’t quite sure what.

I always enjoyed learning about the ‘how’ behind our body’s functions, as well as the intricacies and beauty of nature, but a lot of times I felt like my courses were stale and I was struggling more and more with the idea of being in the health or medical field. I remember around my junior year of college at Baylor, I started to get into my nutrition courses for my minor, and I was really enjoying them. I loved that it was a science but was a lot more tangible to me, and fun.

Also, around that same time, I started to enjoy cooking — and actually being good at it. I could barely make a sandwich up until that point. I started trying new recipes and getting into the art of creating in the kitchen. For me, that’s when the interest in nutrition started.

WACOAN: How did you decide to pursue it as a career?

Hannas: I decided to make an appointment with a career counselor at Baylor, and she suggested looking into being a registered dietitian. At the time, I did not even know a career like that existed. When I started to look more into a career as a dietitian, I knew it was what I wanted to do because it combined my creativity with science and food, and I could work in a myriad of settings, not just at a clinic or hospital.

WACOAN: Do you have a personal philosophy about nutrition, in general?

Hannas: I would say my personal philosophy on nutrition is all about balance, making sure your diet is individualized for your unique body and lifestyle, and viewing food as not just fuel for the body but also for the soul.

I do not label any foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because even if a certain food might not be as nutritious as another, that food may bring you a lot of enjoyment, or it might be the only food you have access to at the time, and that’s OK. As a dietitian, I definitely believe in making food choices that will nourish and lead to increased health, but I think when you view food as ‘bad’ or ‘good’ or only a means to be fit or healthy, you can run into some problems. Food is interesting because it’s something we have to eat every day, multiple times a day, and because of that there are memories, emotions, and community- and friendship-building that happens surrounding food and meal times. Lots of layers when it comes to nutrition.

WACOAN: How much does nutrition contribute to a person’s overall health and wellness?

Hannas: Oh man, so much! Nutrition helps sustain all of the body’s functions and processes. The minimum nutrition provides is energy to live, but nutrition also heavily affects normal growth and development, illness and disease, mood, mental health, sleep and brain function, in order to read, think and communicate. Nutrition can even affect how your DNA is expressed.

Compared to other sciences, nutrition is fairly new. There’s so much to uncover still with how food affects our bodies. It’s pretty neat.

WACOAN: What are the responsibilities of a dietitian in your position, working with a school district?

Hannas: I think there are certainly some overlap as far as job description across the board for dietitians in my position, like menu planning and special diets, but I have come to realize it really depends on the district and that district’s needs or wants from a dietitian on staff.

For me, I do a little bit of everything. I have a big hand in menu development, making sure all of our menus meet the nutritional guidelines for school meals and snacks, provide alternative meals and menus for students who have dietary restrictions, offer nutrition education in the classroom and food demos with our district chef for our students, staff and even parents. [I] control all of our marketing and promotions on social media and in our cafeterias, help out with day-to-day operations when needed, help support our food service staff, and generally help out my boss, our food service director, with whatever needs to get done.

I also act as a preceptor for the Baylor dietetic internship program, so students will work with/shadow me, which has been fun and rewarding. Additionally, I’ve helped develop nutrition courses for high school students with the Texas Education Agency, which has been a cool experience.

WACOAN: What do you see as your mission, relating to the children you serve?

Hannas: I would say my mission relating to the kids I serve is to make sure they have a great experience when they eat in the cafeteria, from start to finish. To the students that I have the opportunity to educate or come in contact with, I hope they can take away knowledge that will positively impact their overall health and wellness for years to come.
WACOAN: What do you wish parents knew about the importance of their children’s nutritional needs?

Hannas: I think most parents know that nutrition is important and are generally able to provide adequate meals, but many don’t realize that the way they talk about food, present or act around food with their children is intensely critical. Displaying a healthy relationship with food to your child and having home-cooked meals together as a family as much as you can is invaluable. I think this just goes back to my philosophy on nutrition — it’s not just about food, but everything surrounding it.

WACOAN: What does a typical workday look like for you?

Hannas: It’s different every day. Sometimes I’ll be in the office working on emails or making menus or something to help my boss or food service director or our chef. There may be some administrative work I need to do or maybe some marketing planning.

Other days I may be off campus, like today. I was at the high school all day, teaching all the ROTC classes a health and wellness lesson. Some days I’ll be at campuses and performing safety Q&As, where I go and make sure that they’re preparing food properly, storing food appropriately, serving food in a safe manner and following nutritional guidelines and standards that are expected under the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] and [Texas Department of Agriculture].

Some days I even have the humbling privilege of being able to help serve our kids. That doesn’t happen that often, but sometimes I do that. It really changes day to day, which I like, and I’m not just stuck in the office all day.

WACOAN: School cafeterias get a bad rap sometimes. I mean, they have made ‘Saturday Night Live’ skits about them. That’s probably an old view of what the school cafeteria food and nutrition looks like. How has that stereotype changed in today’s world?

Hannas: Even when I was in school, we didn’t have as strict of nutritional guidelines as we have now. Now we have what’s referred to as a meal pattern that requires schools to offer students the right balance of fruits, vegetables, fat-free milk, 100% whole grains, lean protein, an appropriate amount of calories based off of their grade level.

We actually do a good amount of scratch cooking at Midway. So, not a whole lot of our entrees are what you just heat up and serve. Our lunches ladies do a really good job of providing a good hot meal for kids. And we always have fresh fruit and vegetables available with the fruit basket on the line. So there’s always opportunity to make a healthy lunch.

WACOAN: So, it’s not just a blob of meatloaf and mashed potatoes anymore.

Hannas: No. Of course, at the middle school and high school level, you have a lot more options. Kids can have pizza and nachos and all those other things. But we definitely offer something fresh every day.

WACOAN: What would you say is the most challenging part of your job?

Hannas: Planning the menus. We do that during the summertime, and it takes pretty much all summer.

WACOAN: That’s something people probably would not imagine.

Hannas: There are a lot of reasons for that. There are just a ton of factors that go into making a five-week long menu for thousands of kids, especially because we have to cater to each grade and then plan for promotions and things like that. There are costs that goes into it and product availability, which was especially prevalent this year due to shortages and supply chain issues.

Then pretty much the factor, for me, is making sure all of the meals meet the nutritional guidelines. We have to do forecasting, making sure menu items aren’t repeated and that certain flavors are spread out. In our heads, we’re thinking ‘OK, what does the plate look like? Is it colorful enough? Does it look good together? Do the flavors go together?’

WACOAN: How about the most rewarding part of your job? What makes you smile at the end of the day?

Hannas: Our cafeteria staff, for sure. Many of them are like second moms to me at this point. They’re just the best. I’m going to cry. I’m just constantly amazed at the amount of work they do every day.

WACOAN: They go under appreciated by so many of us.

Hannas: And I think that’s part of the reason it makes me emotional. I feel like they’re kind of unsung heroes in our schools. They get up at 4 a.m. and get to school at 5 a.m., even when it’s really cold. Many of them have second jobs, so it’s not the only thing they do. With the amount of work they have to do, they’re still so kind and friendly to all our students who come through their lunch lines. They are just the backbone of our department.

I got to grow close with some of them during COVID times, since we divided and conquered. I grew close with a lot of them, providing curbside meals for students and community.

WACOAN: Is there someone who’s been a mentor and inspiration to you in your profession?

Hannas: During my master’s [program], Dr. Suzy Weems was always so kind and understanding and very patient. She was a great mentor. She’s pretty inspiring with the things that she had done in her life as a dietician.

She and Dr. Janelle Walter led a trip to Guatemala every year with the nutrition students. I got to go one year, and it was super rewarding and really cool to see a different perspective on nutrition. We got to do some nutrition education while we were there.

I just felt like those two professors gave back a lot. I’m pretty sure Dr. Weems volunteered at a clinic downtown for free. Since I was a biology major, they were my first contacts in the nutrition department and really made an impression on me.

WACOAN: Tell me about your family.

Hannas: Blake Hannas is my husband, and we have two very spoiled cats. Our black cat, Motley, and gray tabby, Theo. My husband and I both grew up with dogs, so the fact that we are now ‘cat people’ is so funny to me. We wouldn’t have it any other way. They keep our life interesting and fun.

We also have a baby girl on the way due in early June, so she will definitely add a whole new sweet dynamic to our little family.

WACOAN: What kinds of things do you enjoy doing when you’re not at work, when you’re not thinking about nutrition?

Hannas: My husband and I are big Baylor people. We have season tickets to everything, including basketball. We went to the Final Four and the national championship and all of that. So, that is definitely something we love to do. We love our Bears.

WACOAN: What else do you like to do?

Hannas: We love traveling when we can. This Christmas, we went to Disney World with his entire family. With my family, every other year we’ll go to a different national park. Last year, we did Acadia National Park in Maine for a week. Acadia has a little bit of everything. It’s on the coast, so it does have a beach. It has lakes, ponds and streams and everything else. The weather is gorgeous during the summertime.

WACOAN: What does your perfect Saturday or day off look like? Would you sleep in or do you get up and go for walks early?

Hannas: Saturdays are my absolute favorite thing in the entire world. I love Saturday mornings. I don’t like sleeping in too late because I want to savor morning time. It’s just quiet and peaceful. I don’t like to wake up too early, but around 9 or so. I’ll get some coffee, and I have a little room in my house that is kind of like my office and I’ll like read some Scripture or journal.

My favorite thing to do is making breakfast. Usually I’ll try and make something different every weekend. I love making a spread and I usually, if we have people over, that’s one of my favorite things to do is just to make a big spread for people.

On my days off, just to have peace, fellowship with eating, conversation and maybe a football game on TV if Baylor is not at home.

WACOAN: Tell me about some of your preferred methods of self-care. You mentioned running and taking walks. Anything else?

Hannas: For me, it’s about getting somewhere really quiet and just sitting in the quiet. For many people, that might seem weird, but it’s very freeing for me and peaceful. I don’t even like music being played. I just like being in a quiet place or maybe going to run errands by myself or shopping for a specific thing. I love to do things by myself. That’s how I recharge most of the time. When it comes to self-care it’s more about that than a bubble bath or the typical spa day or getting my nails done. It’s the abruption in my routine. That is self-care for me.

WACOAN: There certainly was a change in our routines during COVID.

Hannas: It’s kind of crazy. I feel like this past year and two years, with COVID and the freeze we had back in February, God was trying to tell all of us that we need that, that we need to stop with our daily grinds and our routines and sit and just think about him or just be alone with our thoughts. Sometimes that can be scary for some people, but for me, it’s very relaxing.

WACOAN: I love that. How do you incorporate a healthy diet into your own life? You talked about moderation before, but how do you maintain balance in your own diet?

Hannas: On Sundays I’ll take inventory of what we have in the pantry and fridge and freezer and build a menu for the week based off of what we have. And then I’ll put down things that we need to get to finish off some recipes or things that I need or I want to try. I’ll make a virtual grocery list where everything on the list is ordered in the path, beginning with where I enter the grocery store. It makes your life easier when it’s listed in that way. I feel like when I get prepared for the week and have meals already planned, it just makes things so much easier during the week when things are busy. So that’s how I stay with a healthy lifestyle.

On weeks where I maybe didn’t do the planning, I just try and make do. I always included a protein, a carb and lots of colorful vegetables with my meal. That’s how I build a healthy plate. I make sure there’s a lot of color, lots of different macronutrients, carbs, protein, fat, making sure I’m including all the different food groups. The best tip I can give someone who is wanting to eat a healthier lifestyles is to plan.

WACOAN: That’s very useful information. January is a time when a lot of people are trying to make new goals and reset their health and wellness. What would you say to encourage someone who may be about to start this journey?

Hannas: A lot of times people want to make huge, drastic changes right off the bat, but that is rarely sustainable. So I would just encourage people to evaluate what your diet’s looking like, where you want it to be, and then make small, manageable changes every week. I think a lot of people try to do really restrictive diets, but the best thing you can do is to make your nutrition and the things you eat every day to a lifestyle. So it doesn’t feel like a diet. We eat so many times during the day, and we want to enjoy food and look forward to healing your body. Make sure that it’s sustainable for you, it’s something that you enjoy and is not too restrictive.

Personally, I use the 80/20 rule. So 80% of the time, I’ll focus on eating whole foods, home-cooked foods, fruits and vegetables, healthy carbs, whole grains, things like that. And then 20% of the time, I’ll allow myself to have maybe those higher sugar, higher fat, salt, like Chick-Fil-A or a cookie or ice cream. That’s my favorite dessert. You have to allow yourself to have those things every so often. And if you are punishing yourself in your head every time you enjoy one of those things, you can start to have negative relationship with food. That can spill over into everything else. So, just be easy on yourself.

WACOAN: Such good points. Do you have any healthful go-to snacks that you’d be willing to share?

Hannas: I absolutely loved those mini peppers you can get at the store. Those are my favorite thing. I love stuffing those with feta cheese and just eating them raw. It’s so good to me. It’s kind of sweet but kind of a savory too with the pepper and then the feta cheese adds some fat and just a little bit of protein too. That’s one of my go-tos at the moment. I love to eat cheese cubes. I like a salami slices. I love cashews. Carrots and hummus.

Peanut butter and apples. I always try and pair a protein and a carb together when I eat snacks just because I know they’ll help sustain you longer until your next meal, as opposed to, if you just ate an apple by itself or popcorn.

WACOAN: How about any passions or causes that you like to support personally?

Hannas: We attend Harris Creek. I love my church and our pastor. I have loved being a part of the women’s Bible studies, the sisterhood Bible studies we offer every semester. That has just been a great time to connect with women of all ages. I do have a life group I’m a part of, and all the women are my age, but with our Bible study studies, I get to connect with women that are all different ages and from all walks of life and have stories and things that they can bring to the table.

While we’re talking about Scripture. I have loved supporting my church and being involved in our church. That’s been really sweet for me. My husband and I give to a missionary family in Macedonia. We also support a missionary in Japan, who spreads the gospel to people there.

We also love supporting the Humane Society. My husband and I are both huge animal lovers. We used to foster kittens, and we even fostered a dog one time, which wasn’t so great for the cats. We didn’t do that again, but we like to give to and support the animals in our community.

Jaclyn’s Must-Have Items:

1. My ESV Study Bible.
2. Nespresso machine. I’m a coffee snob, and it’s very nice!’
3. Yeti Rambler tumbler. I use this every single day for my water and am almost never without it. I bring it with me everywhere I go so I can always stay hydrated and my water be kept ice cold.
4. Lululemon Align leggings. So comfortable, great quality, wear them all the time.
5. Fresh flowers. I love getting the $3.99 bunches at H-E-B or in the springtime just picking my own. Hydrangeas are one of my favorites, but I love having any type of flower, as long as they aren’t toxic to cats, in my home. They bring me joy. W