Healthy eating – it’s all about choice

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Choices, choices, choices – when it comes to teens and food, are there just too many, asks Jo Nicholas

Making the right choices can be the key to surviving those turbulent teenage years; but when it comes to food, the problem is there is often too much choice.

Schools work incredibly hard to ensure that they’re serving food that is nutritionally balanced, and adhering to national standards. They also invest in creating welcoming, inclusive dining spaces. But despite all this effort, outside the school gates young people are being enticed by high fat, high salt and high sugar foods.

One quarter of takeaways in the UK are located within a five-minute walk of a school. Cheap deals perfect for a teenage budget encourage them to pick up hot sausage rolls and energy drinks for a breakfast on-thego, share a bucket of fried chicken with friends during lunch hour, and queue for their 4pm sugar fix as soon as the school bell rings.

The Children’s Food Trust’s latest State of the Nation report showed that more than three quarters of 13-15 year olds buy food or drink outside school at least twice a week. It also revealed that almost three quarters of 11-18 year-olds regularly consume energy drinks, despite the potential risks, such as obesity, poor dental health, caffeine overdose and Type 2 diabetes.

Tackling the crisis

So what can we do about this problem? Our research suggests that 90% of parents think schools should adopt a stay-on-site policy, with 67% agreeing that children would eat more healthily if they weren’t allowed to leave school for lunch. This can help schools and teachers too, increasing sales in the dining room, helping pupils to turn up on time in the afternoons and allowing staff to focus on behaviour in school rather than outside. Having a packed lunch policy in place ensures that food brought into school meets the same criteria as that which is served up inside.

We know that forbidden fruit is often all the more tempting, so it’s important schools go further in supporting their students to make healthy choices, taking an ‘all school approach’ to encouraging healthy lifestyles. This could include creating and offering healthy, savoury meals and snacks during cookery lessons, out of school clubs, charity events and celebrations, rather than sweets and cakes high in sugar and fat. Or exploring the links between healthy food and mental and physical wellbeing in PSHE, P.E and science.

In addition, teachers have to take into account that Ofsted inspectors will also look at the extent to which schools are successfully supporting students to gain knowledge of how to keep themselves healthy and make informed choices about healthy eating and fitness.

Give students control

Empowering young people to take control of their own health can also be a great catalyst for change. Councils can use their planning powers to reduce access to less healthy food outside the school gates, and a number of local authorities are already doing this with great success in Leicester, Tower Hamlets and East Northants. Perhaps your school council may want to do some lobbying themselves. Schools can also ask young people to get involved in creating menus and marketing for their own canteens, so they can advise school business teams, as customers, what it is they want to see and what prices are reasonable for them.

Steering students away from the sugar Shangri La that awaits them outside the school gates is not easy, but by making small changes and encouraging your school community to unite in the fight for good health, young people might slowly begin to choose a different path.

About the author

Jo Nicholas is head of research and evaluation at The Children’s Food Trust.