Olivia graduated from University of Leeds with a BSc in Sport & Exercise Science followed by an MSc in Nutrition from Leeds Beckett University. She has over three years’ experience working in the food industry with a focus on food allergies, infant & sports nutrition, and is a registered nutritionist. We caught up with Olivia in between some school visits to get some insights into working as nutritionist in the school food sector and to understand more about the food served in schools.
1. What are the benefits of having a school meal?
School meals have changed a lot – they’re tastier, healthier and a lot more fun. School meals offer a selection of freshly cooked main meals and desserts every day, with lots of variety which is a great way of introducing children to a wide range of foods. Most importantly, school meals now have to be compliant to national guidelines, called the School Food Standards, which set out how school meals should meet children’s nutritional needs. Research by the Children’s Food Trust also showed that children having a balanced meal at lunchtime have improved concentration and learning in the afternoon.
Don’t forget having school meals can also save parents valuable time, money and energy in preparing packed lunches!
2. Are school meals healthy?
Yes! school meals have gradually become more and more healthy due to the introduction of legislation around the food served in schools. Most recently, we saw the introduction of the School Food Standards, but prior to that we followed the food and nutrient based standards. The School Food Standards are national standards which came into force in January 2015, and have provided caterers with a framework on which to build interesting, creative and nutritionally balanced menus. The standards give guidance on the following key food groups:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Starchy foods
- Meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
- Milk and dairy
- Foods high in fat, salt and sugars
- Healthier drinks
The standards specify how often different types of food and drink can be provided. Guidance on typical portion sizes is also included for cooks and caterers.
3. What about packed lunches, are there standards for those?
No, the School Food Standards only apply to school meals provided in school. Many parents mistakenly imagine that a packed lunch is the healthiest option when that usually isn’t the case. In fact, it is often far easier to get the necessary nutrients in a cooked school meal. The School Food Plan reports that only 1% of packed lunches actually meet the nutritional standards applied to school meals!
Our school food sector, Chartwells, the leading school meals provider, recently did an internal study to compare their school meals against an average packed lunch and the results were shocking. The average packed lunch contained 3 times the saturated fat, 3 times the salt, and over 2 times the sugar of that in a Chartwells school meal.
Check with your child’s school to see if they have an Individual policy on what foods they do and don’t advise parents to provide children in their packed lunches.
4. What should my child’s packed lunch include to make sure it’s healthy and balanced?
Each day a healthy packed lunch should include:
- A portion of starchy food. For example white or wholegrain bread, cooked pasta, couscous
- At least one portion of fruit and/or vegetables. For example sliced apple or melon, carrot or cucumber sticks
- A portion of meat, fish, eggs beans or other non-dairy sources of protein. For example sliced meat, chicken or egg in sandwiches
- A portion of milk or dairy foods. For example yoghurt or cheese in sandwiches
- A drink. To help with hydration and concentration
Desserts, cakes, biscuits and crisps are high in saturated fat, sugar and salt; and so too much of these foods can be harmful to health. Try to make desserts, puddings and cakes with fruit or milk, such as a banana muffin or rice pudding.
Don’t forget to vary the foods you put into your child’s lunchbox, to make sure it provides a good balance of nutrients and encourages them to try new colours, flavours and textures of different foods
5. My child has an allergy, will he/she be able to eat school meals?
Schools are expected to take reasonable steps to cater for allergies and special diets as part of the school meals service. Catering providers and local authorities will have a policy and clear procedure to make sure all requests for a special diet are handled efficiently and appropriately.
If you have a question for Olivia email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to the Contact our Experts page and email in via the form.
Look out for next month’s Q&A with our expert Stephanie Hall, who specialises in feeding children with allergies and tolerances.