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Retired NFL lineman tackles new role as a cook at his kids’ school cafeteria

Jared Veldheer is serving up delicious, nutritious meals to hundreds of schoolchildren — including his own — daily.
/ Source: TODAY

After over a decade in the NFL, former offensive tackle Jared Veldheer is taking on a new challenge.

The father of two now has a job working as the kitchen director at St. Paul the Apostle School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. There, he manages lunch for 300 kids, every day — a job that he said is actually pretty similar to his role in the NFL.

Jared Veldheer says kindergarteners are his toughest critics.
Jared Veldheer says kindergarteners are his toughest critics.St. Paul the Apostle School

"I mean, it seems, seems a lot more mundane, but trust me, if one of those things falls out of step, then your whole operation is is in jeopardy, and then the quarterback gets sacked," Veldheer told TODAY's Harry Smith.

As kitchen director, he orders supplies, prepares meals and serves the hundreds of children who attend the school. He said that they aren't as fearsome as some of the football stars he's faced down, but their feedback can still be pretty tough.

"They're very honest, I'll say that," he said. "It's helpful … because they're happy to tell you if they like it, but they're also happy to tell you, 'No, that's disgusting.'"

Veldheer has also put his own unique spin on the menu, serving up options like chimichurri flank steaks and chicken tikka masala, making the cafeteria a culinary destination.

One of Veldeer's menu items: flank steak with chimichurri, baby carrots and rice.
One of Veldeer's menu items: flank steak with chimichurri, baby carrots and rice.St. Paul the Apostle School

"We started getting more (parent) volunteers in the lunchroom because our volunteers get to eat the food," school principal Michelle Morrow told Smith. "And we constantly get (asked), 'Are you going to offer takeout?'"

Children and parents alike both love to see what he can deliver, with one parent saying that it’s "outstanding" and something he tries to "duplicate himself."

One mom said her son calls Veldheer’s cooking "better" than hers.

Veldheer said that his own interest in food has led to the expanded menu. While he was a picky eater as a child, he later became a dedicated foodie.

"There's so much around culture, globally, centered around food, getting together having a meal, having conversation," he said. "To me, it's not only like nourishing to my body, but to my soul."

His menus are also informed by his experience as a pre-med student in college, where he learned about nutrition, and his time as a professional athlete.

"I realized there’s foods that I need to incorporate more to have longevity on the field to have my body feel good from week to week," Veldheer said. "When you’re basically getting in a car wreck each Sunday, you have to be really smart and calculated about it and teach yourself to like new things and think outside of the box."

"To me, (food) is not only like nourishing to my body, but to my soul," said Veldheer.
"To me, (food) is not only like nourishing to my body, but to my soul," said Veldheer.St. Paul the Apostle School

Veldheer said that now, he sees his time in the kitchen as a kind of calling. When he was in the NFL, he often wondered what he would do after retiring, and thinking about that, he said, has led him down this road.

"(Thinking) 'How do you optimize your life (and) get the most out of the, you know, the blessing that we’ve been given on this earth?' and taking that curiosity for purpose has led me down some different roads in life," he said.