What’s cooking in independent schools?

Keri Beckingham explores the promotion of healthy eating throughout the day

The issue of healthy eating has never been more important for education providers to be aware of. With the Government reporting that nearly a third of children aged two to 15 are overweight or obese, it’s vital that independent schools play an active role in educating the younger generation about having a balanced diet. But what are the best ways for them to do this and how are the attitudes of pupils changing as a result? 

A big responsibility

Deborah Homshaw is the Managing Director of CH&CO Independent, a specialist caterer that works across the independent education sector. She believes that her industry has a role to play in not just feeding children, but also in nurturing and inspiring positive relationships with food too. She said: “We should all take responsibility for ensuring our future generations learn the fundamentals of good eating and its benefits. It’s part of a child’s education and development, and an essential part of life.”

Dr Lisa Gatenby is a Registered Nutritionist at Healthwise Nutrition. As part of her role she helps independent schools with the menus they offer, and, as pupils spend a great deal of time at school, she believes it is a great place to help enforce healthy eating messages and provide a balanced diet too.

Commenting further, she said: “It’s so important that children get a healthy diet generally and independent schools therefore need to make sure that the food they offer is as healthy as it can be.

“They have the ability to choose their own food provision, but it is important this meets the nutritional needs of the pupils to ensure they can grow and develop as well as possible, making them as successful as they can be in their studies.”

Promoting healthy eating to pupils

Holroyd Howe is one of the UK’s leading contract caterers, and they provide food services to independent schools across the country. As part of their team they have two qualified nutritionists, who regularly go into schools such as St Paul’s School for boys to promote the importance of healthy eating to pupils.

Claire Long, Regional Managing Director, believes that it’s important to deliver this information in a short and snappy way in order to make it as engaging as possible, and said: “It’s so important to educate children at a young age by talking to them about good food. Independent schools need to educate pupils in a rounded way, not just academically, so that they can understand what good health and wellbeing is.” 

Dr Lisa Gatenby thinks that independent schools should spend more time explaining the difference between healthy and non-healthy options to pupils. In her experience, she has found that pupils may pick a cereal bar over a chocolate bar as they appear to be a healthier option, however, they can still contain a large amount of fat and sugar. Discussing this idea in more detail, she said: “Some pupils are keen to eat well to enhance their development or sporting abilities, however, they are not always choosing the correct food, and sometimes marketing and fancy food labels are all too attractive and pupils can easily misinterpret information. 

“We do have to consider that food is everywhere and snack food sales have increased dramatically, meaning that even a pupil trying to eat a healthy balanced diet can easily take in too many calories, fat and sugar.”

Pupils’ attitudes towards food

As today’s pupils have grown up in the digital age, Deborah Homshaw has seen them embrace wider choice and start to question what they eat, which means that independent schools need to be open and transparent about the sourcing of their ingredients. She said: “They have information at their fingertips and they understand the connection between food and health.”

Amy Roberts, Director of Nutrition and Food Development at Holroyd Howe, has recently worked with the Institute for Food, Brain and Behaviour, who have looked at the link between nutrition and the behaviour of pupils in schools. She thinks that although pupils today are naturally more educated about healthy eating than they have ever been before, it’s important for independent schools to look at things like brain development when it comes to considering their menu options.

Commenting further, she said: “Getting pupils to eat more fruits and vegetables is not the battle for independent schools anymore, instead the challenge now is taking nutrition to another level and encouraging them to eat more things like oily fish which can aid their concentration in lessons.” 

Deborah Homshaw has seen a growth in social sharing eating styles, which she thinks helps to remove peer pressure around what to eat and what not to eat, as well as encourage children to try new foods. In addition, she has also seen a rise in plant-based menus across independent schools. Discussing further, she said: “To ensure pupils choosing meat-free options or a vegan lifestyle get all their nutritional requirements, schools need to recognise and embrace this, and work in partnership with caterers and their nutritional experts to educate children and parents.”

Dr Lisa Gatenby worked with Hazelwood School in Surrey on their menu design. She says that although most schools work on a four-week cycle, Hazelwood School decided to write a new menu for every week in order to give pupils as much variety as possible. She added: “I think that offering a new menu every week is a really good way to make catering options appeal to children and it also keeps the work interesting for catering staff too.  

“Independent schools have more opportunity to be flexible than state schools, so I think they need to take more advantage of this with their menus.”

Case studies

Leweston School in Dorset is a day and boarding school with pupils who range in age from three months to 18 years. At lunch they offer a hot meat and vegetarian option, as well as soup, jacket potatoes, a salad bar, and fruit and yogurt, alongside other dessert options. In addition, they also have ‘hydration stations’ in the dining hall where water is available flavoured with fruit, herbs and cucumber, and jugs are also available on every table.

Discussing further, Marketing and Admissions Manager Claire Worsley said: “From a centralised perspective the catering team reduce salt and sugar where possible. Sweet treats are available but cakes, sauces and custards are made with less sugar or alternatives.

“There are also plans to increase pupil involvement in menu choices by introducing feedback opportunities, such as electronic lunchtime surveys or contributions via post-it note. The catering team also work hard to make the presentation visually attractive using boards, baskets, platters and crates.” 

The Eden School is a co-educational independent faith school in West London for children aged from two to 18. Since the school started in September 1995, they have been committed to promoting healthy eating. As part of this, pupils are not allowed to consume sweets, chocolates or fizzy drinks during the school day, and each Tuesday they receive a health presentation during morning assembly to raise awareness of the impact that certain foods can have on their body.

Commenting further, Head Teacher Laura Osei said: “Over the years, our rules have always been met with a degree of opposition from the pupils, but we have found that as we continue to educate our pupils and provide them with healthy alternatives, they are more likely to make better choices.

“Our nursery and reception pupils, for example, will always request fresh fruit as their snack. Parents have also reported that their children are now requesting healthy meals during the week instead of solely demanding junk food and even pointing out whether or not their parents are eating healthily.”

Portsmouth High School for girls in Hampshire are aware that healthy eating is proven to increase pupils’ concentration levels and understand the responsibility they have to educate pupils about making better meal choices during the school day. As part of this, they run a series of educational activities for pupils in their state-of-the-art food technology centre, which has workstations for 25 people.

 Elaborating on this, Lucinda Webb, Director of Communications, said: “We have food tech lessons from Years 7–9 which give a Level 2 B-Tech qualification. Sixth Form also have enrichment classes which include cooking and food preparation for university and beyond, and we also have cookery club available as a co-curricular activity which is open from Year 1 to Sixth Form. 

“In addition, through our Pupil Voice ambassadors we have a termly food forum where girls can directly feed back to the catering manager about their likes and requests for menus and discuss health options, packaging and choice.” 

Knowledge is power
Rory Larkin, Nutritional Business Partner at CH&CO Independent
“In our digital world of easily accessible – but often dubious, misleading and confusing – nutritional information, how can we get the right information to pupils and parents, and help them make healthy eating a way of life?
“The key is to empower people with correct and relevant knowledge, rather than telling them what to do. When people know the basic principles of nutrition they instantly have more options to eat healthily.
“A great way to achieve this is through workshops that engage children and parents, creating an environment where questions can be asked and realistic advice can be given in relation to government guidelines. Busy lifestyles and information overload can make healthy eating daunting, so it’s important to give people access to easy-to-digest, evidence-based facts. As children often ask questions that some adults may feel embarrassed to ask, working with children and parents together can have excellent outcomes.
“For those less willing to make positive changes to their diets, social norms messaging can be a fantastic tool. This subtly nudges an individual in a chosen direction in a way that makes them feel like they are making the decision, which makes new habits more likely.”

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