10 things you need to know about school meals

school meals

It is 7:30 am and you are in a rush to get the kids ready for school and nursery. With breakfast under way you are stuffing a lunch box for your youngest: a sandwich, some fruit and veg, water, a stick of cheese. You breathe a sigh of relief remembering that you don’t have to pack lunch for your older one who is in primary school and who’s been receiving free school lunches for the past two years. It is a great feeling to know that someone, the state, is looking after the health of your child. But have you ever questioned the state’s choices when it came to providing nutrition for your children?

Very few of us are fortunate enough to have extensive knowledge of nutrition in order to evaluate if school dinners stack up or not on the nutritional value scale. For most parents, understanding if their child’s lunch is nutritionally sound or not can be a daunting process.

Here are 10 things you need to know about school dinners.

  1. Since 2014 school lunches are free for every 4 to 7-year old (from Reception to Year 2) due to the Universal Infant Free School Meals scheme. If your school does not provide free school lunch, you need to call your local council to find out the reasons.
  1. Since the change of the school food regulations in 2015, school lunches have seen a U-turn in terms of nutritional quality. The new standards have got rid of the previously mandatory nutrient values, such as the upper limits on sugar and fats present in schoolchildren’s lunches, the necessary vitamins and minerals and the total energy value lunch should provide for different age children.
  1. Since caterers and school cooks have been relieved of the burden to calculate nutrient values in lunches, many school canteens have seen the comeback of meals that in the past were deemed nutritionally unfit for children. Margherita pizza, macaroni and cheese, jacket potato and baked beans may seem to be children’s favourite choices, but they are also cheap to produce and, most importantly, they do not deliver on key nutrients essential in children’s diets.

Meat and fish, and vegetables, on the other hand – the nutrients hugely important for children’s growth, are costly to procure, hence their presence in school menus is unsurprisingly limited. Oily fish, for example, such as salmon or mackerel, delivering important for growth Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, is required in school lunch only once every three weeks.

  1. Furthermore, many meals cooked up to the new standards load children with excessive sugar. Desserts, including cakes, biscuits, doughnuts, tarts and jellies, are permitted in school lunch 5 times a week. Surveys of children eating lunch in the past showed that when schoolchildren are given a less healthy choice, for example, cake over fruit for dessert, they always chose the former option.

Currently the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) and Public Health England (PHE)  guidance on added sugar for both adults and children is under 10 percent, and preferably 5 percent, of total daily calories. This equates to just 3 to 5 teaspoons of sugar a day for 4-6 year olds and no more than 6 teaspoons for 7-10 year olds. This is a daily maximum. (A medium-size blueberry muffin from a supermarket contains about 4 teaspoons of sugar.) However, in school lunch caterers and cooks no longer need to calculate the maximum amount of added sugar. The new standards simply state “Reduce the amount of sugar in dishes” allowing a lot of freedom for the caterer.

  1. By comparison, school meals in the majority of American schools are heavily regulated. Sugar, salt and saturated fat – the nutrients that are linked to high childhood obesity are strictly controlled. Desserts can be served only twice a week and be only grain-based, e.g. a flapjack or an oat cookie.
  1. Desserts consumed only occasionally, along with nutrient-rich foods and drinks, can add extra energy and make the meal an enjoyable experience. According to the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “Discretionary calories, i.e. calories remaining after fulfilling the body’s nutrient needs from the five main food groups, may come from foods with added sugars if the latter are consumed judiciously”. They recommend serving dessert to children only once or twice a week.
  1. What are the essential nutrients for children? Here are the groups of foods your child should be getting with each of his meal, including school lunch: carbohydrates (pasta, potato, bread, rice, cous cous), protein (meat, fish, chickpeas, lentils, beans), good fats (olive or vegetable oil, avocado, nuts and seeds, oily fish) and fibre (all types of vegetables). The more colours there are on your child’s plate, the better. As this means that together with key nutrients they are also ingesting important vitamins and minerals.
  1. Go through your child’s school menu and together pick out the meals that guarantee a variety of nutrients. Your kid spends six or more hours at school each day, so in order to stay focused and have enough energy for mental and physical activity that the modern curriculum demands from them, it is paramount that they have a nutrient-rich meal for lunch. Help them to make better, healthier choices. Try to stay clear of nutritionally low dishes: pasta with cheese or tomato sauce, jacket potato with cheese, pizza, baked beans.
  1. Talk to the school staff and headteacher about helping children to make healthier choices. They might be encouraged to let children grow their own vegetables at a school’s plot and later use them in school lunches. They might also be willing to talk to the caterers to swap all desserts for fruit and yogurts.
  1. Finally, remember: childhood is a critical period, where the physiological need for nutrients is high compared to energy needs. Taste and food preferences together with appetite regulation are formed in infancy, so embark on a journey to teach your child to pick nutritionally robust foods at each meal, including their school lunch.

School lunch offers a third of the daily energy for schoolchildren. In our current obesogenic environment nutritious and enjoyable school meals not only could help reduce diet-related health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, but also encourage young children’s understanding about the connection of good food and wellbeing, which they will carry into adult life.

Katya Bobova is a freelance journalist who specialises in writing about child development issues. In her areas of research she tries to answer one question: Why do child experts change their opinions so often?

She has written about toddler and baby nutrition, practices of co-sleeping in different cultures, sibling relations etc. and is a regular contributor to “Baby London” magazine.

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