A new study by academics at Leeds Beckett University has found that primary school meals are frequently ‘unhealthy’, ‘fatty’ or ‘soggy’, according to the children who eat them. Instead, the kids want greater choice, more fresh fruits and vegetables and smaller portions, presenting an opportunity for suppliers and catering providers to channel a greater diversity and higher volume of fresh produce into the school dinner market
The research, published in the November 2015 edition of the British Journal of Nutrition, found that pupils, aged seven to ten, expected school meals to be just as ‘healthy’ as the meals provided at home, with more choice, homemade options and a broader range of fruit.
Year 5 pupils in particular expressed dissatisfaction with Friday’s menu choices, which typically consist of fried foods or options such as pizza, burgers and chips.
However, the news came as a surprise to school catering managers, who had the impression that pupils actually favoured Friday’s meals; suggesting there is a disconnect between what today’s children want to eat and what providers believe they will eat and enjoy.
“These findings and the current school meal standards present a significant opportunity for suppliers and catering companies to provide a variety of fruit and vegetables,” researcher Professor Pinki Sahota tells Produce Business UK, adding that the results were pleasantly surprising and perhaps indicate that healthy eating messages are filtering through to children.
“Suppliers and catering providers could help schools to offer healthier meals by offering themed weeks that introduce healthier and different food items; inviting parents to taste/eat with children; offering a wider variety of produce, including exotic fruit, for example; and arranging taster sessions for children.”
What school kids want
Overall, the Leeds Beckett University researchers found that pupils wanted to see a greater selection of food to choose from, particularly in terms of more potato side dishes and different types of vegetables. They also expected to see homemade fresh foods prepared at the school, and fruit available every day, including exotics.
“The responses of the children may suggest some knowledge of and positive attitudes towards healthy eating at school,” Rhiannon Day, a fellow research leader, tells PBUK. “A few of the older pupils suggested that if healthier options were provided, they would choose them.
“Although we did not explore the reasons why pupils wanted healthier meals in significant detail, some pupils expressed that they actually enjoyed eating a variety of fruit and vegetables and because of this they wanted these items to be more readily available at school and home. Some pupils also said that they wanted to improve their eating habits.”
Day says the pupils mainly talked about not liking options such as pizza, chicken burgers, sausages and chips being provided too regularly – the types of foods that are usually provided on a Friday menu.
“There was a perception that these options were ‘fatty’ or ‘soggy’,” she explains. “A few children recommended that pizzas, for example, should be more ‘homemade’ and more vegetables could be added to them to make them healthier.”
Many of the pupils the researchers spoke to also complained that the portion sizes on offer were too large; whereas the catering managers reported giving larger portions and second-helpings to the older or larger children, sometimes also giving them more bread or chips if they could not persuade them to eat the main meal.
“Some children felt that the large portion sizes of some items perceived to be “unhealthy”, such as chips and puddings, contributed to the overall “unhealthiness” of some of the meals,” Day notes.
Ideas for improvement
According to Dr Meaghan Christian, another of the research leaders, pupils’ acceptance of school meals is important because if acceptance is low, pupils will eat generally unhealthy snacks, eat very little at lunchtime or have packed lunches instead.
“Pupils need guidance when making their choices in the dining room and to receive age-appropriate portion sizes,” Day adds. “Regular opportunities to taste new and different healthy foods and rewards for making healthy choices could also act as encouragement.”
To address the issue, the study found that the pupils themselves had “great ideas” to improve their eating habits at school, including more provision of fruit, incentives and rewards for picking healthy choices, and ‘taster’ sessions to try out a wider selection of foods.
“Some pupils suggested a few ideas that schools could employ to help them achieve this, e.g. a greater provision of fruit at lunchtime, break time and through tuck shops, incorporating more fruit into desserts and presenting fruit in a more creative and appealing way,” Day explains.
“A particular example given was arranging fruit salads into ‘faces’ to make it fun; with kiwifruit for the eyes, a seed for the nose and cucumber for the smile.”
Despite all schools in the study claiming to provide fruit on a daily basis, the children still said they wanted a greater provision of fruit; suggesting not enough is being made of the existing fruit offer.
“Although we did not look at the specific display of fruit in the dining room, for example, the responses of the pupils suggest that fruit was not always prominent,” Day says. “There was also the suggestion that fruit in particular could be presented in a more fun and appealing way, as previously mentioned.”
Day claims some pupils also suggested they need assistance in selecting healthier choices; meaning incentivising or rewarding children for making healthier options could be an effective strategy.
“A suggested example included putting stars on ‘healthy’ dishes, so whoever chooses those dishes with a star gets ‘team points’,” she explains.
Get children, parents and teachers more involved
To help children make the right choices, the researchers recommend kids are given more free reign when it comes to deciding what is served on their plates, alongside greater support from their parents and teachers.
Indeed, catering managers perceived that pupils had considerable input into their menu choices, when, in fact, many younger pupils reported that their parents had more influence and they would often have to convince parents to let them have certain menu options or to buy certain foods at home.
“We recommend that pupils have greater participation in school meal provision as they have useful ideas about how to make healthy foods more appealing to them,” points out Day.
“Many pupils from Year 5 wanted to be consulted over menu planning/choices more frequently and wanted greater control over foods served at school. With schemes such as School Nutrition Action Groups and School Councils, pupils could be given a platform to think of ideas to make school meals ‘better’ and more desirable.
“Another of our recommendations is that parents need to be more involved in educational school food programmes,” adds Day
Professor Sahota notes that some good practices are already being followed by certain schools, such as a Nutrition Action Group in place at one school that provides an opportunity for pupils to raise suggestions regarding their food provision.
“Another school had strategies in place to involve parents in healthy eating activities,” she adds. “Teachers were encouraged to eat with the pupils in two schools, acting as positive role models for good eating behaviours.”
What the caterers said
Catering managers, meanwhile, reported that their schools aimed to provide a daily nutritious healthy meal in line with nutritional standards, but admitted that ensuring children liked the meal choices could take precedence over the healthiness of meals.
All schools provided fruit on a daily basis and most catering managers said the meals were usually freshly prepared daily and rarely relied on frozen options. However, the study found that one school carried out catering for 14 other schools in the vicinity, which had an impact on the quality and healthiness of the foods.
Other concerns reported by catering managers included having to use more processed foods or sandwiches to meet raised targets and to make up numbers, with the lunchtime experience becoming rushed as a result of increased numbers of pupils.
Headteachers were more positive, however, commenting that the Universal Infant Free School Meal scheme (UIFSM) introduced in September 2014 would increase the pupils’ productivity and allow parents with two pupils to be able to afford for both to have school dinners.
“We found that the smaller schools only had to make a few amendments to accommodate the new UIFSM scheme,” notes Professor Sahota. “The larger schools, however, had to make major kitchen refurbishments, recruit new catering staff, increase working hours and rethink the structure of the school day to allow for the increased number of children needing to be served. One school reported going from 120 to 270 school meals a day.”
The research was led by Rhiannon Day, Professor Pinki Sahota and Dr Meaghan Christian at Leeds Beckett University, with Kim Cocks of KCStats Consultancy in Leeds. It was funded by Nestlé Healthy Kids Network UK and Purely Nutrition.
In the study, the researchers ran focus groups in eight schools in a city in northern England with 128 primary school pupils, half of which were aged 7-8 years (Year 3) and half of which were aged 9-10 years (Year 5). Additionally, in-depth interviews took place with six catering managers and five head teachers. Interviews and focus groups took place in June and July 2014.
The aim of the study was to find out the perceptions and attitudes towards the school meal provision, and was undertaken prior to the start of the UIFSM scheme in September 2014; which means all children in reception, Year 1 and Year 2 are now eligible for free school meals that comply with the government’s school food standards.