There is mounting evidence that children in the UK have suboptimal nutritional intakes at school, with many failing to meet dietary recommendations. Unhealthy eating and its associated consequences are a public health concern. School meals play a pivotal role in supporting children’s well-being. In many cases, it is difficult for school catering companies to meet the ethical responsibility to ensure the food they provide is always nutritious and healthy, against a backdrop of budget cuts. To strike the balance can be a tall order.
Healthy food is an investment in a child’s future. Eating well-balanced diets reduces the risk of diet-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease later in life. A healthier population is more productive and happier. It also means less strain on the NHS. Considering the all-encompassing aspects of healthy school meals, we are taking a look at the best practices for school catering companies.
A brief history of British school meals
UK school meals have had numerous revisions and regulations since their initial introduction during the 19th Century. Their implementation has its roots in the work of charities in the mid-1800s. In 1879, Manchester pioneered the provision of school meals for economically disadvantaged and under-nourished children.
Subsequently, spurred by growing apprehension over severe malnutrition, the concept of school meals gained solid footing. The London School Board and philanthropic entities took the initiative to offer cost-effective or complimentary school lunches.
Notably, in 1904, a Parliamentary committee underscored the connection between underfed children and the diminished physical condition of military volunteers during the Boer War. By 1920, school meals had gained traction across Britain, feeding one million children.
However, it wasn’t until 1941 that a comprehensive National School Meals policy came into effect alongside the first nutritional standards for school meals. These established the dietary benchmarks for protein, fat and calories required in a school meal.
The Education Act of 1980, in a generalised attempt to dismantle the welfare state, of which school meals were a part, relegated school meals to a non-essential service. It led to removing the obligation Local Education Authorities (LEAs) had to provide meals for schoolchildren, except those eligible for free school meals. Additionally, nutritional standards were abolished, along with the nationwide pricing structure.
Statutory regulations for school meals came into force in 2001, with minimum nutritional standards for school lunches reintroduced. The requirements applied to school lunches provided for registered pupils at schools maintained by LEAs. Since then, the government has taken numerous initiatives to improve the quality of food served in schools, including prohibiting or restricting foods high in salt, sugars and fat and setting levels for the nutritional content of school meals.
The present position
Today, we have a better scientific understanding of food, nutrition, and health. Children learn about the importance of a balanced diet in the classroom, and they have easy access to information on nutrition. However, at the same time, children are constantly exposed to advertising promoting foods high in fat, salt and sugar. They are also consuming more fast foods and processed foods, which are convenient and easy to obtain.
Ultra-processed foods account for 57% of calories consumed in the UK, but the figure is higher in children (75%) and adolescents (83%). The dopamine levels released by the high fat, sugar, and salt content in UPFs can make them more addictive than nicotine or alcohol. About one in ten children are classed obese at the start of primary school and one in five by the end.
These stats indicate the urgent need for a change in promoting the right attitude towards food among children. School is a key setting for improving eating habits. Healthy school meals should be commonplace in every school. Ideally, the reality of food experiences at school should be consistent with the information taught in class.
Pupils must see that healthy food is exciting. School caterers play a crucial role in redefining and reinventing the art of making healthy food available cost-effectively. There is a need for innovation, passion, expertise and knowledge.
School catering companies are a catalyst for change
Meeting standards – meals should meet the nutritional standards and guidelines, such as the School Food Standards in England. These standards ensure that meals are nutritionally balanced with portions from various food groups, freshly prepared for healthy eating. Crucially, the salt, sugar, and fat content must be controlled. Like all of us, children are more likely to try food options that are visually appealing.
Menu innovation – Contract Catering companies should embrace culinary innovation and creativity. Evidence suggests that diverse menu options increase the likelihood of students trying new, healthier foods. By offering a mix of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and dairy products, students have the chance to try a broad spectrum of food, flavours and textures.
Education and awareness – Working in partnership with the school is essential for the caterer’s ability to understand dietary requirements and share ideas. An in-house nutritionist can ensure menus, food combinations, and portion sizes fulfil requirements. In addition, building a good rapport with parents and teachers helps create a wider range of dishes for children with special dietary needs. Making vegetarian/vegan options available helps children make better food decisions from an early age. Nutrition education programs, cooking workshops, and interactive sessions can empower students to make informed food choices. These efforts extend beyond the school dining rooms and into all areas of life.
Behavioural nudges – School caterers can use behavioural economics to encourage healthier choices. Simple changes like placing fruits at eye level, minimising the visibility of less nutritious options, and inventing novel presentation ideas that make healthier food attractive can subtly guide students to choose better options. Friendly staff who explain menu items can also promote healthy eating in schools.
Partnerships with local producers and sustainability – Collaborating with local producers allows school catering companies to provide fresh, seasonal, and locally sourced ingredients. It supports the local economy and enhances the nutritional quality of meals. Sustainable efforts like minimising or eliminating single-use plastics also reduce the environmental impact.
School contract catering companies have a significant role in elevating the quality of school meals in Britain. By adhering to nutritional standards, enabling culinary innovation, educating students, collaborating with parents and teachers, employing creative strategies, and partnering with local producers, they can help prevent a future health crisis. Alliance in Partnership brings innovative catering solutions to primary and secondary schools, serving over 75,000 meals a day in schools and colleges. Freshly cooked with seasonal ingredients, our affordable meals promote sustainability and flexibility.