Traditionally, school food can get a bit of a bad rap. But times are changing, and many independent schools and caterers to independent schools are developing diverse and healthy menus, educating students on why nutritious choices are important, and including them in the ongoing conversation about what they want from their food.
Why are some of these approaches to nutrition seen as almost radical, if links between good nutrition and learning and concentration are now so widely acknowledged? Alistair Turner, assistant head of cookery at Truro School, believes legacy contracts and a tendency to go for the cheaper options due to budget constraints play a part.
Turner says: “In the restaurant business you work with a number of suppliers, so there is more flexibility – schools, in my opinion, can get locked into contracts with big food providers where the only options are tinned, frozen, or ready-made, because on paper it looks quicker and easier.”
At Truro School, Turner and the rest of the team have transformed the on-site sixth form café, moving from ‘grab and go’ sandwiches or jacket potatoes to nutritious, flavourful meals using fresh produce mixed with a dash of creative thinking.
As for the effects of the changes on students’ learning, Turner adds: “I’m not an expert by any means, but I go down there and eat that lunch every day, and I feel better and healthier for it. I’m less sluggish, I’m more alert, I’m full of vitamins and minerals – of course I’m going to have a better afternoon!”
On top of just simply providing more nutritious meals, the new sixth form café is a place for students to socialise and enjoy meals and breaks together, and the culture around healthy food in a pleasant environment makes a significant difference.
Independent schools can go that step further by encouraging students to understand why certain food options are preferable, and to ultimately make healthier choices for themselves to support sustainable long-term health. Paul Quinn, health and wellbeing manager for Independents by Sodexo, echoes the importance of helping students make better choices.
Sodexo has developed a pilot programme – Powering Performance – for independent schools, creating specific recipes aligned with the concepts ‘focus, strengthen, sustain, recover’.
Quinn explains: “When we create each recipe, we combine scientific research from my end with the talents of our top chefs. For example, for focus, we use ingredients and nutrients that support brain health; for strength, nutrients that support physical and mental strength; for sustain, we include nutrients that are proven to allow a steady release of energy throughout the day; and for recovery, we include nutrients that support and repair the body, particularly for after exercise or sport.
“It gives them that education so when they leave school, they have a much better idea of the type of food to choose and why. For example, if they are into sport, they will learn which foods are best, if they are going on to study at university, it gives them the tools to maximise their potential, look after their health and prepare for the future.
We’re part of the pupils’ education, helping them understand the intrinsic link between good food and nutrition and physical and mental wellbeing
“We saw there was a growing demand for more education around nutrition, and we decided to make something that would educate the children and improve their health and wellbeing.”
Claire Aylward, joint managing director, Harrison Catering, also touches on how a good nutrition programme needs to support physical activity, as well as concentration in the classroom: “With sport being part of the curriculum for students, it’s essential that we balance the food offer for classroom study and provide the boost when it’s needed for sporting activity.
“We work with the sports department understanding and matching features to help ensure that the whole team can be properly fuelled with regards to intake of calories, nutrition and hydration.”
Harrison also recognises the science behind the sustenance, as Aylward explains: “We believe that good nutrition plays an integral role in the health and wellbeing of students. This is why Harrison employs the well-respected registered nutritionist and dietitian Dr Juliet Gray as company nutritionist to provide advice and guidance on what we see as an important aspect of good all-round pastoral care.”
One fairly obvious, although perhaps surprising overlooked, way to ensure a good nutrition programme will help students succeed is to ensure they are included in the process.
Quinn adds: “We are gathering feedback all the time, we will be giving out surveys, looking at what students think, trends, what they like and don’t like, we will be constantly improving and upgrading all the time. Continuously getting feedback and seeing how to improve it. We have seen Gen Z showing increased interest in sustainability and where their food comes from, increased numbers in vegetarians, vegans, and flexitarians, and we have incorporated that into our recipes.”
Deborah Homshaw, managing director, CH&CO Independent, also highlights how culture and conversations around long-term good nutrition informs their approach, explaining that CH&CO focuses on “great food that captures customers’ imagination and just happens to be eaten at school”.
Homshaw says: “We’re part of the pupils’ education, helping them understand the intrinsic link between good food and nutrition and physical and mental wellbeing. We do this through interesting, relevant conversations about food; from how it can make you feel and perform to its impact on the planet.
“The impact food and nutrition can have on physical and mental wellbeing, as well as academic and sporting performance, is increasingly recognised. It’s something we’ve been talking about for some time with our schools and in the industry.
“That’s why we launched The Education Board by CH&CO to address and take action around the prominent issues of physical and mental health and sustainability through food and nutrition. The Education Board brings foodservice, independent schools, state schools and the third sector together to challenge the role of food in schools and lead the conversation on the intrinsic link between nutrition and wellbeing.”
St Swithun’s School in Winchester recognises that good nutrition is an integral part of wellbeing support, as well as the need to include students in the discourse.
Graham Yates, deputy head pastoral, says: “There is a regular food forum for the students to provide feedback which is incorporated into decisions around future menus. They are encouraged to give feedback regularly, with a ‘you said, we did’ wall display in the dining room to show how their ideas have been used.
“We are committed to promoting the wellbeing of all students by supporting them to be physically and mentally healthy and able to cope with life’s challenges in a positive and constructive way. Good nutrition is an important part of this – girls at St Swithun’s live life to the full and need appetising, varied and well-balanced meals.
Each day’s menu will always include vegetarian meals, fresh fruit and salads as well as a choice of hot meals and desserts. We want to help our girls develop a positive attitude to food.”
When we create each recipe, we combine scientific research from my end with the talents of our top chefs
A shift in food culture is already at play among young people – increasing numbers are turning towards vegetarian or vegan options, and many are interested in the use of more sustainable, local ingredients.
They are also more informed about food than previous generations; as well as a myriad of information at their fingertips, out-of-home dining experiences are more accessible than ever, with world cuisines available to them that would have been completely unfamiliar to older generations.
This savviness means education around nutrition is paramount, and this must be coupled with ongoing dialogues to ensure students are enjoying the recipes and consequently building satisfying and sustainable relationships with nutritious food.
If the experts in this article are anything to go by, innovative, informative and inclusive nutrition programmes that taste fantastic aren’t just a pipe dream, but do require creativity and a willingness to break free of longstanding ‘school dinner’ tropes.
Time to consign lumpy custard to the history books!
Nutrition and hydration: important learning tools
By Amanda Ursell, consultant nutritionist, CH&CO Independent
Good nutrition affects learning and concentration in many ways. Crucially, in the long term, it can help to ensure sufficient intakes of micronutrients like iron, iodine and vitamin D.
Not hitting recommended intakes can, over time, lead to feelings of extreme tiredness, loss of focus and a dip in mood along with increases in stress, all of which can impact on a child’s ability to learn.
In the short term, balancing the types of carbohydrate eaten and thinking carefully about their ratio to protein within a meal can affect feelings of energy in the hours directly after. So, too, can overall meal size and the amount of vegetables and fruit the meal contains.
Of course, hydration is also key. Children tend to have less sensitive thirst receptors compared with adults, making it particularly important to have drinks easily accessible and for pupils to be encouraged to drink, especially before and after exercise.
Understanding the ins and outs of meal composition from a nutritional point of view, as well as appreciating that the dining experience itself can impact on food choices and therefore nutrition, is an important starting point and consideration for independent schools when selecting and working with a catering partner.