Start right, eat right

1st September 2006 at 01:00
Scottish ministers will come under pressure from politicians and children's charities to improve the lunchtime experience of three and four-year-olds in pre-school.

The influential Wendy Alexander, former lifelong learning minister, announced last week that she is to join forces with Children in Scotland and lobby ministers to make a meal-time experience a daily fixture.

The action arises from an international conference on healthy eating, held last week in Dunfermline, which heard that the practice in other European countries of giving lunch priority as a social experience and ensuring nursery-age children are involved in the preparation of food, could prevent later health problems.

But the conference heard that regulations and red tape made such an approach well-nigh impossible in Scotland.

Ms Alexander, who has six-month-old twins, co-chaired the conference, "An Appetite for Life?" She said: "We need to confront the anxiety about food that exists in Scotland and many western nations. Our approach to food is shaped in the early years and this is the time that we must be ensuring a positive, relaxed and enriching experience of eating for children."

She asked: "Why should Scottish children not have the same experience as three and four-year-olds in Pistoia, Italy, who enjoy the rituals of lunch as a part of their daily routine in the nursery?

"In our Scottish nurseries we need more dough, and less play dough. We need to challenge the production-line style of catering in homes and schools, and ensure that the chip van outside the school gates becomes a thing of the past."

David Craig, quality improvement officer in North Lanarkshire with responsibility for the Hungry for Success and Health Promoting Schools initiatives, admitted that one of his priorities was to rid his authority of plastic trays and replace them with tablecloths, proper cutlery and dishes, as happens in Italy. It was important to encourage children to eat properly, Mr Craig said.

Ms Alexander also railed against some of the "crazy rules" regulating nurseries and other areas of education. She cited regulations preventing parents from selling home-baking at bring-and-buy charity events, and claimed that requirements for disclosure checks on potential host parents and grandparents were hampering exchange visits.

"The balance of risk here is all wrong," she said.

Ms Alexander also told the conference that she "honestly did not know"

whether free school meals was the right approach to encouraging better nutrition and healthier eating among young people.

"There are two schools of thought. Experts have been looking at Sweden and Finland, where they have free school meals and better diets. There are also many people like food expert Joanna Blythman who say the problem is about banning the nasty stuff so that people can't walk out of the school gates in secondary and eat the rubbish."

The former minister described how she had watched fast food vans lining up outside a new school she had opened. "It's wonderful banning all the fizzy drinks inside the school but I don't know if we can get a real revolution if we can buy these things around the school," she said. "That is a discussion we need to have."

Ms Alexander said there had to be change in how people ate, not just what they ate. "Given that the school curriculum gets more and more crowded as children get older, let's start cooking earlier, when cooking is only competing with play and stories.

"Television and food manufacturers and the whole of the high street are already the enemy when it comes to developing good food habits. Let's make what is happening in pre-five and in the home key allies in getting healthy eating right."

Delegates heard how children in Pistoia in Italy treat the kitchen as just another room in the nursery school, eat off fabric tablecloths and ceramic tableware, and drink from proper glasses.

In the north of Sweden, pre-school children cook and prepare food outdoors, learn about hunting and make nettle soup.

Scottish delegates protested that health and safety rules prevented them from taking similar steps. One said: "Our experience here is that children would not be allowed anywhere near the kitchen and parents would not be allowed to come in and cook as and when they feel like it. We have to have an elementary food hygiene certificate to get into a kitchen."

Another, who runs a private nursery in the Borders, said her sector did not have access to Hungry for Success funding, and had to install industrial dishwashers costing more than pound;2,000 because of health regulations.

But another delegate praised officials from the Care Commission, saying they had offered nothing but encouragement for her endeavours to operate an outdoor-based nursery.

Bronwen Cohen, chief executive of Children in Scotland, said: "The Hungry for Success initiative has made a positive contribution to schools - but it should now be extended to cover the early years.

"This will mean enabling children to stay within one nursery over the course of the day rather than be split between different services. Due to the part-time nature of the current entitlement, many nurseries do not offer a meal as part of their service."



Morag Johnson, headteacher of Holytown primary near Motherwell, was seconded last year to North Lanarkshire Council to drive forward the Hungry for Success and Health Promoting Schools agendas because of the excellent practice in her school.

Ms Johnson stresses the need to get everyone on board - teachers, catering staff, janitor, and nursery staff. "It's not just about getting it right at lunchtime," she said. "It's about getting it into the everyday life of the school."

Among the reforms since Hungry for Success was initiated are larger portions, which are much welcomed by the older boys, more variety and healthier, more nutritious food.

Kitchen staff now use fresh produce to provide balanced menus, but that was a challenge for those who were accustomed to simply heating up processed food. "They didn't think the children would like the meals, but they have grown in confidence and encourage the children to try new things," Ms Johnson said.

The school has employed various other measures:

* Music in the dining room.

* A big screen showing the children what they can eat.

* Children are allowed to sit beside their friends.

* A four-week cycle for the menu, sent in advance to parents.

* Individual and class incentives for healthy eating, such as coaching sessions at the leisure centre.

* Incentives for healthy packed lunches too.

* Parent workshops.

* Taster sessions run by the school council.

* Learning about food as part of the curriculum.


* China

Guo Yue, international musician and a writer on authentic Chinese home cooking, told the conference there is no such thing as baby food or children's food in China. Chopping vegetables and preparing other ingredients is an important daily ritual and eating is a social activity.

Families always eat together and noisy mealtimes show that everyone is enjoying the food.

In the old China, children always went home for lunch and then back to school.

* Italy

Donatella Giovannini, pedagogical co-ordinator for infant-toddler services in Pistoia, said lunch was important in the nurturing and education of young children. It should take place in an atmosphere that was pleasurable and devoid of stress and rush.

The whole lunchtime experience takes around one-and-a-half hours and has an important place in the collective life of the school, partly because it helps adults and children bond.

In Pistoia, the eating area has adult-size furniture and tables are decorated. This reminds children to be more vigilant and deliberate in their actions.

Lunch has a strong identity, offering predictability and familiarity.

Children and parents can understand what will take place before it and after it. Each child has a place at the table, and an adult sits and eats with the children.

The children lay the table, take turns as waiters or waitresses and go in and out of the kitchen to collect the food. One of the rituals is the lighting of a candle: everyone holds hands and gets ready to blow out the candle together. After the meal, the children drink a cup of barley coffee.

* Sweden

Elisabeth Amting, an outdoor pedagogue and pre-school teacher in the north of Sweden, argues that the pleasure of playing, learning and eating leads to the pleasure of life.

"Cooking and eating outdoors is very much to do with the pleasure of eating," she said. "All our senses are involved - colours and sense of smell, taste of food. Spending time together in activities like cooking builds friendship and solidarity."

The pre-school curriculum in Sweden includes a duty to pass on the cultural heritage from one generation to the next. In the north of Sweden, that includes outoor cooking and the eating of elk, reindeer, bilberries and mushrooms. Before the elk hunt in autumn, they spend a day with hunters learning about the hunt.

In spring, pre-school children eat bilberry flowers in the wood and pick stinging nettles to make soup. Other traditions include "rhubarb day".

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