The impact of school meal programmes on academic performance and student behaviour

by | Dec 7, 2023 | Blog

Findings by a School Trust Fund study found eating healthy school lunches improved pupils’ concentration. Evidence indicated better quality food and enhanced dining facilities had a beneficial impact on students’ behaviour, resulting in improved independent study skills.

Healthy school meal programmes are consistently showing positive outcomes. Over a third of primary schools (36.2%) involved in a healthy-eating project in England were judged outstanding by Ofsted, compared with 17.3% before they joined the programme. Results indicated children eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day had risen from 16% to 21%, and 45% of parents surveyed said their family was now eating more vegetables.

It is vital to look at the behavioural and academic impacts of nutritious meals in schools.

Food, nutrition and behaviour

Research undertaken on the impact of nutrition and student behaviour in school overwhelmingly indicates that diets can affect students’ behaviour and development. The research suggests that the changes to our food system that took place in the past century may be partly responsible for the rise in mental health issues and behavioural problems while also contributing to obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers.

Foods that benefit our bodies also benefit our minds. The nutrients for promoting good mental health and overall well-being are also universally recommended for maintaining physical health. This wholesome dietary approach encompasses a blend of polyunsaturated fats, essential minerals and vitamins while limiting the intake of saturated fats, sugars, and specific food additives and agricultural chemicals.

Certain nutrients, like polyunsaturated fatty acids, particularly omega-threes, play a pivotal role in brain development and functioning. However, their effectiveness relies on the availability of a wide range of other nutrients in the right amounts and in proportion to each other.

Excess consumption of unhealthy fats, sugar, and sodium causes feelings of irritability, anxiety, confusion, depression, and poor memory. A healthy diet supports steady moods, better concentration and good general wellbeing. These outcomes are critical for children’s success at school and in society. There is more that can be done to highlight how foods can influence children’s moods, feelings and subsequent behaviour.

School meal programmes and behavioural changes

Several published studies show that carefully planned menus reduce disruptive behaviour and absences. Certain studies have found that school children who received nutritious meals, including supplements of essential fatty acids, showed less aggression, compared with controls, when placed under stress. Pupils in primary and secondary schools tend to behave comparatively better in class and remain more “on task” in the afternoon after a nutritious lunch.

A school breakfast program also shows promise. Children who ate breakfast every day reported improved memory and a sense of calm under challenging conditions than those who had erratic morning routines.

Numerous research studies establish a connection between inadequate levels of specific vitamins or minerals and problematic behaviour in children. Scientists see a correlation between the mineral zinc and serotonin levels. Low levels of zinc and serotonin metabolites have a connection to aggressive behaviour. An overwhelming majority of children (exceeding 80% in some age categories) consume quantities of zinc that fall below the recommended daily Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) for the population. At least 10% of these children have zinc deficiency.

Healthy school meals and educational outcomes

Research shows healthy school lunch programmes improve student academic achievements. These findings establish a correlation between the quality of food programmes in schools and educational outcomes. Shifting from low-budget processed meals to healthier meals and snacks has seen positive impacts. Absenteeism from sickness also saw a drop of around 14%.

Why do school meals have a bigger nutritional impact?

A food and nutrition service by the schools can provide pupils with balanced meals, sometimes going as far as to provide the better part of a child’s daily nutrition. Better quality school meals and dining experiences make a healthy lunch more accessible to children from all backgrounds.

Children are more likely to try new foods during a meal programme operating in a school than at home. School food and nutrition services are instrumental in normalising a balanced diet. Standards met in school meal programmes set a good nutritional foundation for children and will enable them to form healthy relationships with food.

The impacts of healthy school meals extend well into a child’s adult years. From more positive behaviour to higher academic achievements, food can shape minds as well as physical well-being. School lunches can help pave the way for a healthier population by creating a nurturing setting with better quality food choices available to all children. Alliance in Partnership provides schools and colleges with affordable, fresh, healthy, and wholesome meals that meet nutritional goals. Keeping sustainability at the heart of operations, using seasonal, and quality ingredients is vital when curating exciting menus for primary, secondary, and 6th form students.