A large serving of good health

11th January 2013 at 00:00
When it comes to the popularity of healthy school meals in Angus, pupils' plates tell their own stories. Jean McLeish tucks in

It's health by stealth at Forfar Academy, where even the chocolate brownies are made with grated courgettes, grated beetroot and grated carrots.

"The kids love them," says nutritionist Claire Nixon, whose job is to ensure children have healthy, balanced school meals. "It's a reduced fat and reduced sugar recipe and it's still tasty."

Statistics show that the uptake of school meals in Angus secondaries is the highest of any mainland Scottish authority. Since last year, the number of meals consumed in Angus secondary schools has risen by more than 5 per cent.

Before the changes were introduced at Forfar Academy, almost 30 per cent of 1,100 pupils took lunch in school. Since new serveries and an outdoor catering outlet were introduced, that figure has risen to over 50 per cent, winning children away from the lure of unhealthy chips, sweets and fizzy drinks at local shops and supermarkets.

Cutting queues by introducing multiple service points and a new outside catering outlet, offering meal deals and a bigger variety of foods they enjoy is drawing children back to school meals. Similar changes were made in schools across Angus, which has pioneered strategies to encourage healthier school meals since 2006, when the authority piloted the Scottish government's Hungry for Success programme.

"They came to us to see what we were doing in Angus and they took the good points that we were doing and passed it around all the other Scottish local authorities that were doing Hungry for Success and just shared how we were doing it," says Fiona Dawson, education catering adviser for Angus Council.

The dining hall here at Forfar Academy is laid out more like the food court of a city centre shopping mall, with different stands serving a variety of international foods from noodles, curry and burritos to the more traditional lentil soup and chicken pie. A mobile catering unit called Meet 'n' Eat was set up a year ago in the school grounds, where you can pick up a hot panini, baked potato or soup if you prefer to eat on the go. What you won't get are chips, sweets or sugar-laden drinks.

It's not just the food that's been changing at schools like Forfar Academy; more attention is paid to looking after customers by offering meal deals and improved service. "If you've got a grumpy old woman behind the counter, you won't want to come back. So the lady behind the salad bar is upbeat in selling our food and the children will come back," says Linda Sturrock, facility officer for Tayside Contracts, the local authority contracting organisation providing school meals across Angus, Tayside and Perth and Kinross.

"Anything curried or spicy" is always a winner with pupils here, according to the cook in charge, Marjory McLaren, who remembers the days when it was a choice of just two traditional main courses for school dinners.

She makes sure these Angus teenagers are getting their five-a-day. "We sometimes just mix the vegetables through, we pulverise them and put them through the mince or the mince pie," says Mrs McLaren. In Angus primary schools, carrot and courgette are grated through the pizza bases or into the tomato sauce and every child in P1-3 gets a free piece of fruit three times a week.

School kitchen staff create nutritionally balanced meals working alongside Miss Nixon, food and nutrition coordinator for Tayside Contracts, who studies feedback and reacts to evaluations from schools across the three authorities.

Catering staff also attend pupil council meetings to hear their views and ideas. Older pupils are assertive enough to complain if they're not happy, like today with the pasta sauce. "It was quite watery," says Nicole Muir, 16. Nearby, Joanne Mcvey has opted for a box of pasta with vegetables and chicken: "I like the salad box as I think it's the better tasting of the options," she says.


Everything from the funky menu layout to the language used to describe their food is designed to attract children to a more balanced diet.

"What they don't like, we don't put on again," says facility officer Linda Sturrock from Tayside Contracts.

"They like macaroni cheese, pizza, sausages and steak pie, says nutritionist colleague Claire Nixon.

So what don't they like? "The things that we try and do that are healthier," she laughs.

Ms Sturrock expands: "We actually never use the word 'healthy'. Everything's healthy, but you don't tell the children. They don't like that word. So we tell them a different word, we'll say 'tasty'."

All the home baking served here is made with reduced fat and less sugar, and Miss Nixon and her colleagues are continually developing new ideas for healthier eating. "We've worked with our butcher to get reduced fat, reduced salt burgers and sausages in place," she says.

She and the education catering adviser for Angus, Fiona Dawson, also visit schools to teach pupils more about how to choose their food wisely.

"I was at Tannadice Primary School with a class of P5 children and we were looking at popular fizzy drinks," says Mrs Dawson. "I showed the children how to read a food label, how to get the information from that label to inform them how much sugar was in fizzy drinks."

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