Monthly Archives: April 2013

Testing times….

Laura Sharp

The return to school after the Easter hols will mean only one thing to loads of you with children of certain ages…..yep, exam season’s looming. That means nerves, grouchiness and worry all round. But the one thing you don’t want to be worried about is what they’re eating.

I know we say it all the time, but it’s worth repeating: research proves that when kids eat better, they do better. They’re more focused on learning after a good meal, while some smaller studies we’ve done found pupils got better results in schools offering healthy breakfasts compared to those that weren’t.

Back in 2009, we ran a survey of 500 13-17 year olds and found that:

  • 42% said they chose chocolate as their snack of choice when revising. A third (33%) chose fizzy drinks and a similar number chose biscuits (31%). One in four (26%) went for caffeine-laden energy drinks
  • When we asked what were their top ‘brain-fuelling’ foods to help them concentrate, they did put healthy choices on top: one in three chose fish (34%) and fruit (33%) and a quarter chose pasta (25%) and vegetables (24%). Chocolate (15%), fizzy drinks (12%), sweets (8%) and biscuits (7%) were relegated to the bottom
  • But even though they were clearly clued up about the benefits of healthy eating, eight out of ten (79%) agreed they’re more likely to snack more and eat less healthily when studying or revising
  • Four in ten (42%) said they’d skipped meals to make time to study
  • Only 48% agreed eating properly was important to help you study
  • Less than 20% felt that getting enough exercise was important in the runup to exams.

So what should they be eating in the coming weeks of revision and exams? Here are my top tips:

  • Get their brains in gear with a good breakfast. Breakfast gives us the energy we need to get our brains going again in the morning. So base their breakfasts on starchy foods like bread or cereal – don’t forget, wholegrain varieties release energy more slowly, which means they’ll keep them going for longer. Try muesli or porridge with low fat milk; yoghurt and a handful of dried or fresh fruit; wholegrain toast with tomatoes and mushrooms; or peanut butter or baked beans on wholegrain toast. Add a glass of fresh fruit juice for the vitamin C – this helps them absorb more of the iron from cereals
  • Take advantage of school breakfast clubs. Many schools lay on free breakfasts during exam periods to help students start the day – a great way to get them focused and calm the nerves
  • Remind them to have a drink. If they’re complaining of feeling tired and lethargic during a revision session, it could be a sign that they’re not drinking enough water. Our bodies need this to work properly, so make sure their glass is topped up. Try to avoid the soft drinks – they might stave off thirst, but they can be full of sugar and empty calories. And kill the caffeine. Energy drinks laced with the stuff are often popular with teenagers, but it’s like sending your body on an energy rollercoaster
  • Encourage them to stay in school for lunch. A good school meal from the canteen is chock-full of the nutrients they need for a heavy day in the exam room
  • Get them friendly with fish. A great source of protein and essential vitamins and minerals. At least two portions per week is the ideal, including one of oily fish like salmon or sardines. Check out the Marine Stewardship Council’s website for loads of great recipes
  • Don’t let them skip meals. They’ll find it difficult to concentrate if they’re not eating regularly enough. Little and often are your watch-words!
  • Make every snack count. Sweets and biscuits might give them an instant hit but they release energy quickly. Instead try foods like bananas, dried apricots, wholemeal toast and unsalted nuts – they all contain slow release energy that will keep tummies full and minds on the books. There are loads of great snack ideas here
  • Iron power. This is a common problem for teenagers anyway – if they’re not getting enough iron, their energy levels start to drop and they find it harder to concentrate. Try giving them more pulses like chickpeas or lentils, eggs, red meat, dried fruit and leafy green vegetables like spinach. Getting some vitamin C at each meal helps their bodies absorb more iron, too. Check out tasty school recipes for high-iron dishes (just reduce the quantities if you’re making them at home)

Laura’s one of our nutritionists. Email Laura.


Family bonding on the menu


Guest blogger, Jane Miles, Children’s Food Trust board member.

In February, St Willibrord’s RC Primary School deservedly won the Let’s Get Cooking national Golden Spoon Award 2013, which for them, celebrates the huge success of their ‘dads and lads’ club to help fathers and their sons cook their way towards a healthier lifestyle.

After having the pleasure of meeting members at the award ceremony in London, I was so inspired that I planned a visit to see their great work in action.

On Monday 11th March, I rolled up my sleeves and got on my way. As I approached the school the snow was falling and a gloomy Manchester day was before me. However, once I was at the school I was met with warmth, enthusiasm and passion. Some members of the club were away with ill health but Andrea Wheeldon, the school’s Family Worker who runs the club, was keen for the club to go ahead.

At 12.30pm, I helped set up a practical space for the dads and lads to work in. Portable ovens, chopping boards, electric whisks, washing up bowls and ingredients were brought to the floor. Three dads, one mother and a group of spirited children worked hard all afternoon; mixing, chopping, cooking and tasting! By the end of the afternoon a healthy stir fry and oatmeal cookies were proudly served. The pupils and parents worked, chatted and engaged with one another.

Lads and dads in action!

Lads and dads in action!

Healthy eating, bonding and building positive relationships with each other were top on the list of priorities for the day and are embedded in the ethos of their club.

Throughout the afternoon, we had lots of interested visitors who wanted to bring their dads to the club next time. The day was a wonderful opportunity to see how food can really bring people together, even before it hits the table.

I’d like to say a big thank you to all at the school for welcoming me into their club and for letting me experience the wonderful environment and goings-on of a very popular cooking club. Here’s to lots more great cooking (and eating!) by lads and their dads!

Stories to make your sweet tooth ache


After a long weekend which for so many kids (and adults, too!) will have been chock-full of sugar in the form of chocolate eggs, this should be a good time to get a few facts straight about the sweet stuff in children’s diets.

After all, if you’re a parent and you’ve been reading about sugar in school puddings over the Bank Holiday, you might be feeling seriously confused.

First, a few basics about sugar. The sugars that occur naturally in milk and fresh fruit are one kind of sugar (‘intrinsic’, if you want to get technical). The stuff you find in cooked and dried fruit, fruit juice and in cakes, biscuits, sweets, squash and soft drinks, is another kind (‘non-milk extrinsic, or NMES for short). This form is often also called ‘added’ sugar.

The Department of Health recommends that we don’t have too much added sugar. Of all of the energy we get from our food and drink (calories, to put it another way), it recommends no more than 11% of that energy should come from the added stuff.

In primary school, a child’s lunch should contain around 530 calories. Apply the 11% rule, and that means the average school lunch shouldn’t contain more than 15.5g of added (NMES) sugar (if you want to think about the whole day, the average child at primary school needs around 1767 calories; the 11% rule means no more than 52g of added sugar in a day).

That means schools can’t put any cake on the menu with more than 15.5g of sugar in, right? Wrong. National nutritional standards for schools allow cooks to be flexible in designing their menus, and to help children learn about the range of foods which make for a balanced diet. They do this by measuring the average lunch in a school’s menu cycle (which is normally 3-4 weeks long). So, a school can offer a cake or pud which is higher in added sugar on one day, but for their average meal to meet the nutritional standards, other days will have to be much lower in sugar – so it all balances out. Put another way, your child’s school won’t be meeting the national standards if it’s serving up cake with lots of added sugar every day of the week.

Of course, the standards also help keep sugar down by banning confectionary, promoting healthier drinks, and helping make sure that portion sizes are sensible. We advise schools to get different pud options on the menu and to sweeten puddings with fruit wherever they can – as this helps pupils towards their five-a-day fruit and veg target at the same time. And the standards on sugar have worked – the amount of sugar kids are eating in school meals has fallen significantly since the standards came into force (by more than a third in secondary schools).

It’s completely possible to make delicious puds for kids which give them less than 15.5g of added sugar – take a look at our recipes for schools here. Try them at home* if the Easter bunny’s left you feeling sweet enough for now…

Just don’t forget to make the quantities smaller – these recipes are designed for school cooks, so they make enough for lots of children!

Claire’s one of our nutritionists. Email Claire.

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