Apologies and European School Food

So poor School Food World has got off to a rather bumpy start. Having launched it when I was quiet, I am suddenly inundated with work and have had to set the site on the back burner.

But my ideal is to post about school meals around the world if not every day then every other day, and my intention is that I will get better at finding the time to do that.

So finding myself with an unexpected extra hour this morning I thought I would attempt to get back on track by highlighting a recent post on the European Food Information Council website about school meals and nutritional standards. Unfortunately it’s not credited so I can’t say who wrote it, but it is an academic style summary of the way food is served and provided to children in different European countries. It also cites a number of studies and further references which is handy for me to do additional research.

After pointing to the benefits that nutritious school meals can have for children and their learning, the article goes on to describe some examples of best practice in different countries.

I particularly like the idea of a ‘plate model’ that’s used in Sweden and Finland where all school meals are funded by the government. Although children receive their food from a central server, the plate model at the start of the process allows them to serve themselves, but shows them roughly how their plate should look at the end.

This way of engaging children with the food selection process is a fantastic way of teaching them how to construct a healthy meal for themselves. If food is simply dropped on a plate by one of the school caterers, how much are the children involved with understanding the way the plate is made up? By allowing children to construct their own plate, you can have a conversation with them about how much protein, dairy, vegetables and carbohydrates should be there, and what excellent lessons and understanding to receive at such an early age. Invaluable for them going into the future.

Of course for caterers in the UK portion control would be an issue, which is perhaps why this works in countries where the food is funded by the government. But I would love to see a UK caterer trial this – perhaps amongst juniors rather than infants – and see how it went. I think most children would be sensible and know not to take too much of one item. Controls could be used by offering second helpings if children are still hungry and food is available at the end of service. Or turn it into a game where children receive a sticker if their plate closely resembles the model. What do you think? Would you be prepared to let juniors serve themselves?

In France school meals are constructed from a series of basic elements. Each lunch consists of a main, a side, a dairy item and a starter or dessert. The main will consist of meat, eggs, fish, cheese or offal (can you imagine the faces of British children?!).

French standards apply to lunches and sound complicated but I suspect are more simple when you know them. Based on a 20 meal rotation, restrictions are placed on how often items are served. So at least 10 of the 20 meals must have cooked vegetables, eight meals will be served with a fresh fruit pudding, 10 meals will include starchy foods, cereals or pulses and so on. Portion sizes vary according to the age of the children.

Some of the Benelux countries – the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and Denmark – as well as Portugal, Switzerland and Austria (and also New Zealand and South Africa) do not have a well established school meal system. Mostly that’s because children tend to go home to eat because the school day ends early in the afternoon. Finnish children are not allowed to bring a packed lunch.

The article concludes that although standards applied to school meals are to be applauded, they will only work if children like, choose and eat the meals. It cites some examples where children are involved with menu selection and taste testing, and this again I think can only be beneficial for schools, caterers and children.

Everyone in a school needs to be fully engaged with the discussion and provision of lunches or take-up will continue to falter. Head teachers, governors, parents and children should be involved with – and excited by – meal options and be involved with the choices. Time and again it’s been shown that where the school kitchen and lunch is fully integrated as a part of school life, and children are involved with growing ingredients, or designing the meals, or tasting them, that catering provision will thrive and take-up will climb.

I’d love to hear about schools where this is happening and thoughts about how do we get busy head teachers and governors to really get behind their food provision.

4 thoughts on “Apologies and European School Food”

  1. really interesting article. Love the idea of letting children serve themselves. Our school has recently divided into two – infants and juniors. I wonder if there was a way we could arrange this for the juniors? Do you have more information on how this works anywhere?

    I don’t think the school day is any different in NZ than it is in the UK. We don’t do school dinners – although some schools particularly in poorer areas have introduced them – and didn’t when I was at school either. Then the primary day was 9am to 3pm and my secondary day was 9am to 4pm.

    1. Hi Lynley,
      Thanks for your comment. No, at this point I don’t have more information on the plate model but I will do more checking and see if I can find a school doing this and get a photo. I think basically at the start of service someone would make up a plate and put it on display so the kids can see it and copy it. I imagine their serving would have to be overseen and assisted, and I really think it would need to be backed up by the school with an assembly or class lesson showing them what to do and explaining in simple terms about how much of each kind of food goes onto their plate. But I love it. What a simple way to get children making important choices about their diet at such an early age, and teaching them about how to construct proper nutritious meals, and having ownership of their own plate. I would love to see schools here adopt that. Maybe some already do.
      That’s interesting about school days in New Zealand. So everyone just takes a packed lunch?

  2. Very interesting stuff. I totally agree regarding ‘self serve’ and engaging with pupils about food choices in Sweden and Finland. In some cases the problem in the UK with this approach might be one of ‘buy in’ rather than portion control. People talk about fear of change in every job in every industry when a new way of doing something is introduced. When your job is to serve several hundred meals in an unfeasabily small amount of time it can understandably be unadulterated terror of change!

    The best School Chef I know (I would say that I employed him in my opps manager days) who runs the catering at an Academy near Doncaster believes its all about engaging with kids to give a dinning experience. From day one his position at lunchtime has been in the queue with the kids basically entertaining them with banter and talking about food. All the kids call him Chef and many of them try new things and make better choices beacuse they like and trust him.The more vocal comentators on the food (every school has them) are invited to work in the kitchen for a day to help ‘improve’ things then serve their peers at luchtime wearing the obligatory chefs hat.

    All this obviously takes a huge amount of backing from the schools management. This whole school approach to school food is sadly not commonplace in the UK. Maybe there’s more to learn from the approach in other countries than just lessons for the actual catering operator?

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