Healthy School Lunches – How To Talk To Your School To Make Positive Nutritious Changes

Are you worried about the school food at your child’s school? Is it too sugary and lacking in the fresh stuff? Over the past 18 months with the new social distancing rules in place, many schools have struggled to provide healthy school meals. So many have turned to providing a packed lunch and these are much harder to make healthy than a hot lunch.

A study carried out at the University of Leeds published earlier this year, showed that packed lunches have hardly improved in nutrition over the past decade. It found that crisps and white bread sandwiches were still in a typical packed lunch and vegetables hardly ever feature. The core finding in this study was that in the UK only 1 in 100 children’s packed lunches meets the right nutritional standards, so parents and schools need to work much harder on the lunch box front, until such time that hot lunches are available to our children again.

Our kids all need a nutritious lunch for many reasons and these include stronger immune response to infections, good focus and concentration, better academic achievement (and many kids need this in spades after home schooling), a positive mental outlook, to maintain a healthy weight and to help keep their teeth strong. Kids also tend to behave better when they have had a proper hot lunch.

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Our School

Our school has had to go down the packed lunch route so far this term. Having been proud of providing amazing school food, it has been only been able to provide the pupils with a hot meal every other day. The packed lunch offerings on the alternate days have been an absolute joke in terms of volume of sugar and highly processed food.

Lots of parents had expressed their concerns, and it all came to a head one day this week when the lunch menu was: a jam sandwich, a small fresh fruit pot, a packet of Wotsits, a slice of lemon drizzle cake and a carton of juice, which would have totalled around 44 grams of added sugar. This was after a triple packet of biscuits at breaktime which added another 10.5grams of added free sugar.

For reference the NHS guidelines for an entire day are as follows: Children over 10 should limit to 30g of free sugars a day (roughly equivalent to 7 sugar cubes), ages 7-10 need a max of 24g of free sugars a day (6 sugar cubes) & children aged 4-6 should have no more than 19g of free sugars a day (5 sugar cubes).

As well as the high sugar levels, you can see this lunch offering was devoid in protein, healthy fats, vegetables and most vitamins and minerals and puts all the pressure on the parents to provide the core nutrition a child needs at breakfast and supper.

As you can imagine, lots of parents raised their concerns this week, and thankfully I spoke to the headmaster and they have found a clever way to be able to provide all the pupils with a hot lunch every day from next week. This is wonderful news as I am sure this will make a massive difference to the kids and make the teachers’ job much easier in the afternoon. It will involve a very tight lunch rota, plated food with no choice and short lunch slots but at least they will be getting some decent grub.

We are extremely lucky that our head can make the decisions over school food, and I appreciate that many school heads do not have that autonomy and the decisions are at a council or catering-contract level making it much harder to reach the right people to implement change.

How To Create Positive School Food Change

Many parents ask me how to approach a school if they have concerns about their school food; and I wanted to share my experience of my kids’ school as well as the other schools I have consulted at, to help them make nutrition improvements.

Form A Food Committee

I have been lucky to be part of a parent-led food committee at my children’s school for a few years now and this came about when we had a change of chef and the school food went downhill rapidly from lovely fresh food to heated up frozen processed food and lots of sugar and artificial sweeteners creeping in. We knew the situation was difficult and the headmaster was not that happy about it. Thankfully we had another change of chef relatively quickly and we now have a wonderful head chef who has transformed the school food as well as the health and vitality of the teachers and pupils.

A good way to get heard is to find other parents at your school who share the same concerns as you over the school food. Identify the key weaknesses in the school food and speak together rather than individually, to approach the school.

Find The Facts

Get savvy with the latest NHS guidelines over sugar consumption and school lunch guidelines. The Change For Life Campaign breaks this down simply and easily for you. My cookbook The Good Stuff brings together all latest children’s nutritional guidelines in in bite-sized sections so you can learn more. If the school is giving the children more added sugar or too many highly processed convenience foods on a regular basis than these guidelines, then you have some powerful tools to show the head teacher.

Identify The Key Weaknesses

Rather than rant about the school food as a whole, be specific and constructive. Identify which areas have room for improvement. For us it was an inaccessible and limited salad bar, sugary biscuits at breaktime every day, too much cordial on offer, and more recently the excess sugar in the packed lunches.

In any school, there will be thorny problems that can’t be fixed, and also lower hanging fruit that can. So you might want to grade the issues by how hard or expensive they will be to change, and make suggestions to demonstrate how easy it will be. Don’t forget to spell out the advantages to the school of making these changes. Would the headmaster like the children to have better mental health, behave better and be off school sick less? I think so!

Once you have a hit list, you can tackle them one at a time. Or two at a time… if you go to the chef or headmaster with a big problem that you know is going to be impossible for them to fix, follow that with a smaller ask that can be fixed, and you might get that.

Also, you may find that they key weaknesses are people who don’t believe the science, or don’t want to give up things they like. In one case we found a school bus driver was feeding his little passengers sweets. So some tact is often required.

Build Up Rapport With Your Chef and Head Teacher

I know that some parents are pretty vocal and forceful with their schools. There’s no denying that can work as a strategy, but it’s not my style, and I prefer a much more collaborative approach.

Be persistent. Remember the squeaky hinge gets the oil! But don’t overwhelm the chef or headteacher with too much criticism all at once. It doesn’t go down well!

When the school food has been great, tell them about it. Everyone likes to be praised and this can go a long way in building a positive relationship for when you want to implement change. I am convinced that the time we put in on the parent food committee over the past four or five years made the decision so much easier for our head, to make instant changes when the packed lunch fiasco happened.

I hope that these guidelines help you to have the confidence to share your concerns over the school food with your kids’ school and other parents. It takes time to implement change and once the schools are on board with the connection between the quality of food and academic performance and behaviour then you could well get them onside.

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A repeated cross-sectional survey assessing changes in diet and nutrient quality of English primary school children’s packed lunches between 2006 and 2016

Change For Life


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