Thanks to Jamie Oliver, school meals are now a highly monitored and much-scrutinised part of education and school life. And with the cooking elements of the curriculum now in place, students should be more clued up than before. But we need to do more.
When students enter secondary school, they are given the freedom to choose part of their daily diet for what will be, for most of them, the first time. If schools are offering a balanced meal and the environment to sit and enjoy it, then this should be encouraged and supported. Many schools have gone a long way to providing healthy, nutritious and balanced menus. Even better, some have instructed members of staff, including leadership, to sit with the students and be role models for “restaurant rules” during lunch.
However, sadly what we are seeing too frequently is students ignoring this good work and electing to spend their lunch money in a shop on the way to school, filling their bags with “goodies” that neither consistently maintain their energy levels nor improve their dietary wellbeing. Teachers are all-too-familiar with the yoyo-ing sugar levels that often result in disruptive behaviour and non-engagement in the learning.
Thus far, the fact that the school system is becoming more aware about food has not prevented these patterns of behaviour (though it is, admittedly, early days).
In my experience, key stage 3 students’ prior knowledge of food and nutrition can be patchy. This is no fault of the primary school, as they do not always have facilities, qualified staff or the time to deliver food advice in an already full curriculum.
Some families manage to fill the gap and pass on skills, teaching children to cook at home. Others do not have this opportunity and so it is our priority to develop their lifelong skills and ensure healthy choices.
So what can schools do?
The introduction of canteen-based biometric systems that enable parents to see what their children are buying is only useful if suppliers ensure that good food choices are offered and parents actually want to act to improve a student’s diet. Sadly, neither of these things is guaranteed. Another option, given tight lunchbreaks, would be to ensure that queues move swiftly, making the experience feel more like fast food than school lunches. But this may not be enough to draw students in.
In my school, we have taken a different approach. It looks like this:
Knowledge is power
We make all students in KS3 keep a food diary. Everything they eat over the course of a week, they note down, and after seven days we assess their diet. Results can vary from absolutely horrific to very impressive. It means we have a starting point from which to plan how we can improve things.
Keep a tight focus
Our cooking classes focus on students being able to cook eight balanced meals by the end of KS3. These recipes should embed all the basic knowledge about what makes a healthy, balanced meal and the skills to create it.
Connect with home
It is always possible to make sure that the meals children cook in lessons can be taken home for the evening meal. This ensures that you are having an impact on all aspects of the child’s life, and that you are helping the family, too. You are not only assisting busy families by providing dinner, you are also demonstrating how cooking from scratch does not need to be hard or expensive – and that it is better for you. An open dialogue with the parents will ensure that sufficient ingredients are bought or provided to cater for a larger family. Pupil-premium students might be eligible for additional funding in support of purchasing ingredients.
Try to accommodate likes and dislikes by making appropriate changes without altering the overall nutritional balance of the meal.
…but encourage students to broaden their palate
Make sure you build in plenty of demonstration and tasting opportunities to widen the taste experiences of the students. Often, peer pressure will encourage the most reluctant child to try something new.
Finally, link healthy eating with fitness
Encourage your students to think about diet and fitness together. The light bulb moment when a Year 9 boy makes the connection between athletic prowess and what he eats is pure magic. And it has a lasting impact.
Charli Wilkins is a food and nutrition teacher at Warblington School, Hampshire