Caterers in the education sector have one of the most difficult jobs in foodservice – their audience is at best discerning! Caterers for younger children have to encourage even the fussiest of pupils to eat and in higher education, students are more cost conscious, trend aware and plant-based or free-from foods are a focus. As dietary requirements and customer demands proliferate, continuing to raise the bar when it comes to variety and flavour while reducing fat, salt and sugar content becomes increasingly daunting.


Children under five are reportedly the most at risk of the harmful effects caused by incorrect levels of salt, sugar and fat in their diet, which is why nursery catering is so critical. Mistakes are easy to make, for example, a single slice of toast and marmite (even when thinly spread) can deliver a child’s entire recommended salt intake for the day.

Finding alternatives or removing ingredients that are bad for children is an everyday occurrence for most nursery caterers. Den Nursery Group only uses coconut sugar, agave nectar, maple syrup, honey or unrefined molasses in their treats to ensure they provide a nutritional benefit. “The sugars we use are low in the Glycaemic Index and keep our children’s blood glucose levels stable. This is important as refined white sugar raises energy levels quickly, for short periods and then sees levels drop suddenly – which can leave children feeling tired and drained,” says Kate Cresswell, Catering Manager at Den Nursery Group.

Making positive swaps to wholemeal or wholegrain foods such as pasta, rice and bread also makes a difference, reducing cholesterol and increasing fibre intake. Using dairy free spreads in baking to reduce saturated fats and salt free stock are another example of a simple ingredient swap with a positive impact. Overall, scratch cooking and removing all processed foods give caterers the ultimate control over their meals. “We do not use any salt in our meals or serve processed food. This ensures a minimum salt intake,” says Kate. “By reducing the amount of salt and sugar in our children’s nursery food, we are taking a proactive step towards promoting healthy eating habits that can last a lifetime. By making these small changes, we can help our little ones develop a taste for healthy foods and reduce their risk of health problems down the road.”


Of the three main educational groups, schools have the largest pool of resources and support to ensure their catering meets nutritional standards, however with budgets continually squeezed, the task is not easy. ProVeg UK is one such organisation working with schools to increase the quality of meals served while reducing sugar and salt.

“We’re currently working with over 5,000schools across the UK, feeding over 800,000 school children daily, and our recipes have been a massive hit! The Sri Lankan sweet potato and coconut curry, spicy Singapore noodles and sticky chocolate brownie with banana ‘nice’ cream are some of our most popular dishes – as you can see, very different from the Spam Fritters, rubbery sausages, and semolina served when I was at school!” says Lisa Marley, Chef, ProVeg UK. “Each recipe is simple to make, low-cost and low-carbon, created by our in-house nutritionist and plantbased chefs. Also low in salt and sugar!”

However, far from being able to dictate a menu full of healthy, low salt and low sugar dishes, it has been proven that school caterers could face a mass revolution if they take away pupils’ favourites. Although many of the lessons learnt in nursery catering can apply in school catering, young people have been exposed to more flavours, foods and brands. As such, they will seek indulgence foods – just as adults do, so understanding what’s important to them and where they are willing to compromise is essential for success.

For example, removing baked beans from the menu would cause an outcry, but swapping them for low sugar, low salt beans works perfectly. Baked, breaded fish made with wholemeal breadcrumbs instead of fried batter or something as simple as understanding what a child’s portion looks like to ensure they don’t consume more than they need, is another way of managing their diet.

For caterers who can’t make every bake, cake and biscuit from scratch, work is also well underway to provide ready-made healthier snacks – such as cookies that do not taste like cardboard or birdseed! Alex Brassill, founder of Jnck Bakery is currently producing cookies that are 90% lower in sugar, have 50% less saturated fat, 3x protein and 5x fibre than other products in the market. “We have been given a nutriscore of zero, using ingredients such as pea protein for satiation, prebiotic fibre for gut health and perhaps most impressively, a bespoke, low sugar, protein chocolate” enthuses Alex.


As children transition into young adults, dietary habits can quickly take a turn for the worse as students opt for the quick return of a sugar hit in-between lectures, or the high-fat content of chips to soak up excess alcohol from the night before. Tackling this consumer group needs a two-pronged approach: a change in messaging when it comes to food education and attracting positive decisions by tapping into our ability to “eat with our eyes”.

Understanding that students no longer wish to be preached to, but treated like adults, changing the method of communication about diet is critical. Cardiff Metropolitan University have introduced Eatwell, a brand that signifies a healthier option. The team work hard to ensure Eatwell dishes look visually stimulating to attract more attention than less healthy options.

At Goldsmiths University, BaxterStorey is embarking on a 7-year partnership to transform the on-campus food offerings to healthier, more sustainable options. “We are embracing the opportunity to continue educating students and staff about the importance of a balanced diet,” says Dan Wilson, Head of Food, BaxterStorey. “Sharing information about the nutritional value of our dishes so that students and staff can make informed choices about what they eat, can have a positive impact on both physical and mental wellbeing.”

“Additionally, we organise events and activities that promote healthy eating habits. For example, we host cooking classes that teach students how to prepare healthy meals at home and run Food and Mood workshops that discuss the importance of a balanced diet. We work with universities to create educational materials for apps and posters that share tips on eating healthily.”

Keeping every plate spinning in education catering is an on-going challenge, caterers have to constantly monitor salt, fat and sugar levels in their dishes while making them tasty, appealing and relevant to their audience. They also play a critical role in educating students at every stage of their learning journey. Understanding the need to adapt this message to resonate with their target audience as they grow and mature is key to success, but caterers also need the support of their suppliers to highlight products that help them make better, more informed choices for their students