A consistent message about healthy eating

A whole-school approach to healthy eating means improving healthy choices across all aspects of school life, such as breakfast clubs, tuck shops and lunchtime provision, as well as making sure nutrition education runs through the curriculum. Alex White from the British Nutrition Foundation looks at what else can be done

There is ongoing concern about the number of overweight or obese school-aged children in England, with figures from 2018 showing 16 per cent of pupils aged 2-15 years to be obese and a further 12 per cent overweight. According to the National Child Measurement Programme (2016/17), when children start school in reception already around one in five are overweight or obese, with this number rising to one in three pupils by Year 6. These figures are similar elsewhere in the UK. Recently, Public Health England (PHE) published estimates of the level of excess energy (calorie) intake amongst children (compared to current recommendations) suggesting that overweight or obese primary school pupils are consuming, on average, over 140 excess calories a day. This is even greater amongst secondary school pupils, with overweight or obese pupils estimated to be consuming up to 500 extra calories per day, depending on their age and sex.

The National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows that school-aged children are consuming too many free sugars and too much saturated fat, but not enough fibre, oily fish, fruit or vegetables. Evidence that intakes of some micronutrients may be insufficient in the diets of some young people, particularly teenage girls, also highlights the need to focus on the quality as well as quantity, of foods and drinks they consume.
As dietary habits are established early in life and weight has been shown to track over the life course (i.e. overweight children are more likely to become overweight adults), providing children and adolescents with the skills, environment and support to develop healthy eating behaviours will impact on their health throughout childhood and beyond.

Government direction

In 2016, the government’s Childhood Obesity Plan outlined a number of activities to help create a more supportive environment for young people to make healthier choices. These included the soft drinks industry levy (which began in April 2018) and the Sugar Reduction Strategy, to reduce the sugar content of products contributing most sugar to children’s diets by 20 per cent by 2020 (launched in 2017).

Within England, the School Food Plan was published by the Department for Education in July 2013. Since then there has been the introduction of universal infant free school meals, the introduction of cooking and nutrition on the curriculum for Key Stages 1, 2 and 3 and mandatory school food standards. Similar approaches have been made in other areas of the UK.

A whole school food approach

The attitude, ethos and environment of a school can influence the health and wellbeing of pupils. A whole school focus on healthy lifestyles, from school food providers and the whole school community ranging from head teachers to parents, chefs, teachers and classroom assistants, helps provide a consistent approach to support pupils in developing healthy habits.

A whole school approach goes beyond the classroom, improving healthy choices across all aspects of the life of a school, such as breakfast clubs, tuck shops and lunchtime provision. This includes high quality nutrition education offered through the curriculum, teaching pupils the importance of healthy living and how to apply this in practical terms. As well as impacting on nutritional status and overall health, this may influence learning as there is some evidence that pupils with better health and wellbeing are likely to achieve better academically.

At the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), we encourage all schools to take a whole school food approach. One way of achieving this is to become involved in our annual BNF Healthy Eating Week (running this year from 11th to the 15th of June 2018) which demonstrates commitment to pupil health and wellbeing. In 2017, 9,681 nurseries and schools representing 4.2 million pupils registered for the week which focusses on five challenges; have breakfast, have five a day, drink plenty, get active and make a change to help make a positive difference.

Food and drink provision

Providing healthier choices within school can be achieved through breakfast clubs, healthy tuck shops, school meals and packed lunches, ensuring they provide healthy, balanced and nutritious meals with the appropriate amount of energy and nutrients pupils need. There are school food standards in place throughout the UK to help achieve this; based on both the types of food and drinks that pupils should be offered at school (food-based) and the proportion of nutrients that pupils should be provided by school food (nutrient-based).

Whilst the standards differ throughout the UK, they all seek to improve school food. They also include standards for healthier drinks; ensuring that free fresh drinking water is provided at all times, and restricting drinks that should be consumed less frequently, for example by limiting serving size and added sugars. Policy in the UK also states that crisps, chocolate or sweets cannot be offered within school meals or vending machines and there are limitations, in England, on deep-fried and battered foods (with similar legislations in place in the rest of the UK). Whilst these standards are mandatory for most schools and academies throughout the school day, they do not apply to packed lunches brought into schools by pupils.

Healthier lunchbox policies

Whilst it is not mandatory, many schools have adopted healthier lunchbox policies, which have been shared with parents and carers to encourage healthy eating in school. These are usually based upon the principles of the Eatwell Guide, encouraging a lunchbox to contain a starchy food, such as rice, pasta, bread; plenty of fruit and vegetables, a source of protein, such as beans, pulses, egg, fish, meat, as well as a healthy drink, such as water or semi-skimmed milk.

Many schools also suggest to parents and carers that foods high in fat, salt and sugars should not be included (such as crisps, confectionary and sugar-containing carbonated drinks) and some schools have identified non-food based incentives for pupils to follow the healthier lunchbox policies; offering rewards such as stickers, certificates or team points. These policies aim to complement the provision already in place for school meals to help achieve a whole school food approach. BNF has produced some healthier packed lunch ideas, which can be found on its website.

Curriculum

Lastly, the teaching and learning through the curriculum needs to reflect the commitment of the school to promote health. It is therefore important that pupils have the opportunity to learn about where food comes from and how to cook, as well as how to apply healthy eating messages to their food choices. In order to support primary teachers’ delivery of high quality food education, BNF has created a range of free resources, for pupils aged 3 to 16 years, via its Food – a fact of life website for schools. In addition, the site offers training and support for teachers – with a current offer of free training for all primary school teachers throughout the UK.

Next steps

In order to ensure our school pupils are having the best start in life, it is essential that schools promote a whole school approach, and that food and nutrition education plays a pivotal role in teaching pupils about food and ensuring consistent healthy eating messages are taught throughout the school. We believe a whole school food approach focussed on high quality food education is the best way to improve the health and wellbeing of pupils.

For nutrition information to support your school and classroom resources to support food and nutrition teaching, see the website below.

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