The importance of good school meals

The importance of good school meals

Opinion: Teach Secondary

Subject: Comment
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Dr Nicola Davies looks at the link between midday meals and student outcomes, and provides some practical advice on how to encourage teens to make healthier food choices…

According to the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), the demand for a healthy diet is relatively high during adolescence due to rapid growth and development both mentally and physically. This is becoming increasingly recognised by schools and the government, hence the recent introduction of new rules for healthy school dinners; the emphasis is now on achieving diets that will help teenagers meet their full potential at home and school. “Nutrition directly affects student’s academic performance,” confirms Abigail Wilson, director of eDietitians. “Studies have shown nutrition impacts thinking skills, behaviour, and learning - children who eat more fatty foods fared worse in mathematics and reading. Additionally, those diets high in trans and saturated fats can have a negative impact on learning and memory.” Lisa Jack, dietician, adds, “Healthy eating and school meals can have an effect on concentration and alertness, which are related to better academic performance and learning behaviour and thus better achievements in exams.” In contrast, processed foods can cause increased hyperactivity and a lack of concentration, and replacing them with fresh fruits and vegetables, can drastically improve student grades. “There is some evidence to support nutrition and diet having a part to play in raising attainment of students, but there is limited evidence on the impact specifically of healthy school lunches on academic performance,” observes Dr Ros Miller, nutrition scientist at the BNF. “A Schools Food Trust study in 11 secondary schools in England, looked at whether the introduction and promotion of healthier school food and improvements to the dining room environment had a positive impact on learning behaviours in the classroom, immediately after lunch. There was some evidence of a positive impact on students’ engagement and concentration and their ability to learn. However, further studies are needed to see if these behaviours translate into improved academic performance.”

Outside influences

“The home environment, schools and the wider community can help teenagers make better choices by providing environments that support healthy options,” says Miller. “In order to understand how teenagers can be encouraged to make healthier choices it is first important to consider the context of the wide range of influences on their decision making, including their environment, the type of activities available to them, the food environment and its impact on an individual’s consumption, and societal influences such as the media, education, peer pressure or culture.” Miller believes that teenagers can be encouraged to make healthier selections through the provision of information to help support informed choice. She comments, “It’s important to highlight good nutrition through the school curriculum and healthy food choices can also be encouraged through the food and drink available in schools.” The recently published School Food Plan (schoolfoodplan.com/plan/) emphasises that a whole school approach - which integrates food across the school ethos and throughout the curriculum - is required to effectively and sustainably change the eating habits of students. Such an approach might comprise education programmes, including aspects of nutrition in science, learning where food comes from, and applied healthy eating and cooking through Design and Technology. As Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, states, “We know that whole school approaches to food have been associated with improvements in children’s diets and their food choices.” So, what options can be presented to encourage healthier lunch choices? Tedstone has some suggestions.“We know that presenting food in appetising and interesting ways helps to promote their uptake,” she points out. “We also know that the way in which food is offered can have an impact, such as offering healthier options higher up on the menu and at the front of serving areas, and providing two vegetable servings instead of one.” The School Food Standards (schoolfoodplan.com/standards/) have put limits on certain food types, which will help encourage healthier choices. These include no more than two servings of fried or pastry-based options to be provided per week and at least one vegetable or salad option to be provided with each meal. There is to be a variety of fruit and vegetables, and wholegrain carbohydrates are replacing refined food such as white flour and sugar.

Eat smarter?

“There is some evidence that deficiencies of certain nutrients, such as iron deficiency anaemia, leads to impaired cognitive function,” advises Dr Ros Miller. “However, there isn’t enough evidence to draw conclusions about the effects of increasing vitamin and mineral status on the academic performance of schoolchildren.” Nevertheless, there is some evidence for certain ‘brain foods’ that can aid studying:

  • Fatty acids such as Omega-3 and Omega-6 (in fish and nuts) are essential for neurons functioning at optimal capacity.
  • Folic acids, found in legumes and spinach, improve memory recall.
  • Apples contain quercetin, an antioxidant that improves memory function.
  • Phytonutrients and antioxidants in berries increase blood flow to the brain.
  • High fibre foods with a low glycaemic index, such as wholegrain bread, pasta and crackers, prevent lethargy.

About the author

Nicola Davies is a psychologist and freelance writer with a passion for education. You can follow her on Twitter (@healthpsychuk) or sign up to her free blog (htttp://healthpsychologyconsultancy.wordpress.com/)