Inspiring children and young adults to eat healthily is not always easy. While we have a burgeoning consumer group who are more keen than ever before to understand the provenance of their food and the impact food production has on the environment, the Government has recently released fresh data which shows obesity in children and young adults is continuing to increase year after year.

School and higher education catering has undergone huge change over the last 15 years, with programs such as the Government’s 20% less meat being introduced, calls for continued funding and support for school meals during lockdown and even Jamie Oliver’s campaign which started back in 2005 has been rejuvenated to encompass child health as well as school dinners.

As the new school term approaches, we take a closer look at how school catering teams can continue to develop methods that support children and young adults to make healthier choices at mealtimes.

Meeting the Challenges Head-On
Catering for different age groups in schools is undoubtedly challenging, developing menus that are nutritious, provide variety and accommodate a multitude of dietary requirements on a budget requires skill and tenacity.

“The biggest challenge for school caterers when it comes to healthy eating is that pupils don’t really like eating vegetables. Through Tilda’s support of Veg Power’s ‘Eat Them to Defeat Them’ campaign we know 80% of children don’t eat enough and 50% of parents have given up trying to get their kids to eat 5 a day!” says Annette Coggings, Head of Foodservice, Tilda UK “Over the summer Tilda worked with a number of Welsh LEA’s, as well as Hampshire County Council Catering Services (HC3S) to host weekly cook along sessions with pupils using Tilda Brown & White rice with a vegetable that needed to be defeated. Through the campaign we hope it will inspire pupils to eat more veg, but also spur on school caterers to get creative with their menus.”

Linking the dining hall with education is an important element of implementing change. Chefs in Schools is an organisation combining the skills of chefs and teachers to transform food, food culture and food education in schools. Nicole Pisani, the founder of Chefs in Schools is dedicated to teaching children all about the food they are eating, promoting lifelong healthy choices by undertaking activities such as cooking classes in the kitchen, talking to students about nutrition and healthy eating during their science lessons and providing vegetables for children to draw in art class.

“I was in a school in Stretham, its a primary and secondary school and over the lockdown period, we decided we wanted to set up a Koji lab in the school kitchen. It links to education and it is taking the education of food up a level, many restaurants don’t have Koji labs, let alone a school! But the importance is the education, making food accessible and interesting to the kids.” Comments Nicole. “The kids come in and they see the mould growing on rice and then we show them the process of making soy sauce, which most kids love. It works because they are coming into the kitchen, they’re seeing something that isn’t ordinary and they’re getting excited. They’re going to tell their friends and they’re excited about lunch.”

Nicole believes that school gardens are fundamentally important to encouraging healthy eating. “The kids, they just love getting their hands in the soil. They love pulling out veg and its guaranteed that if they pull out a carrot, they’re going to eat it two minutes later. They’re eating raw beetroot, they’re eating sorrel because it’s not forced,” says Nicole. “There is a primary school we work with and they get vegetables and they hide them in the soil and then they tell the kids, ‘go and find a beetroot’ the pupils start pulling out vegetables and getting so excited.

“It is easier to encourage Primary school children to eat more healthily but with secondary school children you hear them complaining in the corridor about eating spinach!” continues Nicole, “We’re in five secondary schools at the moment and we’ve learned that linking the food we serve to the food tech department by asking the teacher what they are teaching that semester has a real impact. For example, if they are teaching about sugar, we can then make sure that when they come into the dining hall, there is a cake made with 50% apples, 20% pears and 10% honey to show them the natural sugars versus processed white sugar.”

Education however should not solely be aimed at the pupils, staff in school kitchens have long been left without specific training qualifications for the sector. The team at Chefs in Schools are currently writing a qualification which introduces nutrition for children, menu writing, portion sizes and training on how to get children excited about food. “One of the biggest problems we are witnessing is portion sizes. It’s not necessarily what we’re actually eating, it’s the amount that we’re eating. The amount that gets put on the plate is too big even for an adult sometimes, but nobody has been trained on it!” comments Nicole.

Making Healthy More Appealing
Whether they know the importance of eating healthily or not, encouraging children to select a healthy school meal requires tapping into a bit of child psychology and a touch of trial and error. “When schools tackle dinners by saying ‘this is what you have to eat because it’s healthy’, they’re encouraging the exact opposite behaviour.” Says Nicole Pisani “In one school, when we swapped Heinz ketchup with homemade ketchup, we had a protest! They were literally in tears, saying ‘why would you
do this to us? Who are you? Why would you take away the most important thing we know and love?’ There is a fine balance between treating students as adults, letting them make their own decisions and giving them a little bit of guidance in a way that’s not force-fed.”

Rather than removing all familiar and popular options completely, consider using no added sugar, low fat options from the same brands. Heinz have developed a range dedicated for schools including 50% less sugar and salt ketchup, light mayonnaise and no added sugar baked beans. James Birch, Business Development Chef, Away From Home, Unilever suggests supplementing this with slight changes to much loved dishes, reducing the meat content and increasing the quantity of vegetables and pulses “When making a classic like a cottage pie, elevate it with extra roasted root vegetables and lentils instead of beef mince. Roasting your vegetables gives great textures, those umami flavour notes associated with meat dishes and intensifies the natural sweetness. Lentils are a great source of fibre, protein and low in fat.”

It is also well-known that we eat with our eyes, so consider how food is displayed, is it connecting with every one of our 6 senses? “Look at the layout, design and language used on menus and use descriptive words to draw attention to dishes such as crisp summer salad or zesty salmon fillet” suggests Ruth O’Sullivan, UK and Ireland Nutritionist, Unilever.

Addressing topical issues with menu solutions or building trust by communicating how the kitchen is contributing to improving the environment is another way to encourage healthy eating. Linking social trends such as meat free Mondays with environmental change taps into what’s important to students, giving them options which positively impact the issues they are passionate about without having to promote the dish as a healthy option.

The days of the Turkey Twizzler may be behind us, but it is clear there is still a lot to be done. The good news is that children are more interested in their food than ever before. Meeting this curiosity with exciting, delicious meals and building strong connections between the kitchen, teaching staff and curriculum will contribute to the ongoing journey of raising the standards of school meals across the sector, reducing childhood obesity and giving children the best possible foundation for the rest of their lives.