The importance of nutrition in school meals

by | Dec 2, 2023 | Blog

In 2005, watching Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners, Britain had an eye-opener. School children in the UK were in nutritional jeopardy. Although the full array of processed food our children were eating can never be shown in a four-episode documentary, the audience saw enough Turkey Twizzlers and Chicken Dinosaurs to realise how standard school lunches deprived children of basic nutrition. Balanced nutrition in school meals is vital to healthy development and effective learning.

A report by Public Health England indicates that healthy pupils are likely to achieve better educational outcomes and fare better socially and emotionally. Most importantly, nutritionally-focused meals at school instil healthy eating habits in children that last through adulthood. So, what constitutes a healthy school meal?

School Food Standards

These standards are in place for school meals in England to ensure pupils receive high-quality, nutritious food. Apart from school lunches, these standards apply to breakfasts, morning breaks, tuck shops, and after-school clubs. Basic recommendations include;

  • one or more portions of fruit and vegetables every day
  • one or more portions of starchy food, such as bread or pasta, every day
  • a portion of food containing milk or dairy every day
  • a portion of meat or poultry on 3 or more days each week
  • oily fish once or more every 3 weeks

There are severe restrictions on salt and sugar, foods high in fat, and low-quality reformed or reconstituted foods. More information on UK Food Standards can be found here.

Why do school meals make a big difference?

There is clear evidence that school meals can improve children’s dietary habits. It is a promising avenue for the equitable enhancement of children’s diets. With their extensive reach across populations, schools play a significant role, as children spend approximately 40% of their time and consume 30% of their meals within the school environment.

Since school lunches have consistently emerged as the preferred choice over packed lunches, recent research spanning the past decade to fifteen years highlighting the positive impact of implementing School Food Standards is of vital importance. From reduced absenteeism to better national curriculum test results, beyond dietary benefits, healthy school meals contribute to positive behaviour and improved attention.

Nutrition in UK children

Studies have shown that children in the UK typically consume foods high in saturated fat and sugar and low in fibre. Their diets contain fewer fruits and vegetables. Only 8 % of UK 11–18-year-olds meet the ‘5-a-day’ requirement. In the UK, children consume the highest levels of ultra-processed foods in Europe and have the 8th highest levels of obesity among 10-19-year-olds.

The nutritional quality of a child’s diet during their formative years has far-reaching consequences, influencing subsequent development, educational accomplishments, health outcomes, and overall well-being. Dietary patterns have a lasting impact on adult eating habits and the risk of non-communicable diseases.

A study funded by NIHR has found that ultra-processed foods make up almost two-thirds of Britain’s school meals. Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) undergo extensive processing during production. These include frozen pizzas, carbonated beverages, dairy-based drinks, industrially manufactured packaged bread, and ready meals. Evidence shows their link to a range of health risks.

What are healthy school meals?

Meals cooked from scratch with fresh ingredients high in nutritional value constitute healthy meals. Children should eat regular balanced diets that contain protein, starchy carbohydrates, vegetables and fruits. The Eatwell Guide recommends eating at least 5 portions of fruit and veg daily. Making food look exciting, colourful and fun encourages healthy eating in children.

Nutritious food does not mean it will always be a stretch in budgets. An innovative and balanced nutritional approach to school lunches can make them in line with budgets and high in nutritional value. Seasonally driven flavoursome and wholesome menus are easy to curate and better for the environment and the local economy.

Seasonal, locally sourced and organic ingredients promote sustainability and help make a positive social impact.

Affordable and balanced nutritional School meals

School meals enable children to access affordable nutritious meals, especially with the current high inflation on essential food products. The adverse effects of food insecurity, inadequate nutrition, and childhood obesity are well-documented, with potential repercussions on physical health, mental well-being, and social aspects. As a result, ensuring food security for all children with nutritious school meals is of utmost importance.

The responsibility of nurturing the next generation is a shared endeavour. Parents, educators, nutritionists, contract caterers, and policymakers must join forces to achieve nutritional excellence in school lunches. Children can flourish academically, physically, and emotionally when they are healthy and happy.

At Alliance in Partnership, we strive to deliver healthy, bespoke and cost-efficient meal solutions to schools and colleges. We make food exciting, whether it is a healthy mid-morning snack, a cooked lunch, or a grab-and-go meal. Our nutritionist curates menus for children with special dietary needs and delivers a well balanced diet with high nutritional value.