Category Archives: School meals

Cereal offenders

Laura Sharp

I blog a lot about how tough it can be, as a parent, to navigate the claims food manufacturers make about foods they promote to children. Some products say they’re ‘sugar free’ but they’re full of sweetener; others highlight their calcium content for bone growth but also pack in more than a decent pinch of salt. It’s a part of our food culture that feels specifically designed to bamboozle, right when parents’ decision-making powers are at their most fragile. And there’s one group of products which seem to be more confusing than most: cereal.

Choose the right type of cereal (like wheat biscuits, porridge oats or cornflakes – check out the advice in our guidelines for childcare) and it’s a healthy start to the day, and a great snack at any time. Some are fortified with iron and other vitamins to help your child get the recommended amounts.

But pick up the wrong box and you can be getting your child into a habit you don’t want to pass on: a sugar habit. Next time you’re in the cereal aisle at the supermarket, have a closer look at the boxes. Many of the cereals targeting children with colourful characters and free gift promotions are also the ones packing in the most sugar. Check out the nutrition labels: anything with more than 22.5g of total sugar per 100g of cereal is way too high for any of us to eat regularly, let alone children. If there’s a colour-coded nutrition label on the box, and it’s showing red for sugar, it’s not one for every day.

In the last week, Which Magazine published a report on cereal bars which found some contain more than 40% sugar; as much as you’d find in some chocolate bars. Yet their marketing can be confusing, suggesting they’re a healthy snack option for children.

In fact, cereal bars are often so high in sugar that they’re counted as confectionary as far as childcare and schools are concerned. That’s why we recommend avoiding them if you provide food for kids – for example, our guidelines for nurseries suggest lots of alternative snack ideas that will keep little ones full of energy without loading them up with sugar, while school food standards ban them completely from breakfast and after-school clubs, from lunch and break time menus, and from school vending machines.

Parents really want better information about the foods they choose for their children, and that shouldn’t mean having to study detailed nutritional information when they’re trying to get round the supermarket quickly. That’s why we’ve been calling for more work to make food labels even clearer and more consistent, particularly on products aimed at children – and why we want to see the next government really get hold of this issue. We’d like to see colour-coded nutrition labelling on all products, as well as clear information about what makes a portion size for a child.

In the week when the latest Children’s Dental Health survey also announced that half of eight year olds are still suffering with cavities, we need to do much more to help parents steer children away from developing a sugar addiction which can last a lifetime.


Newsround food survey: children missing out on five-a-day

A new survey by Newsround has found many children still aren’t getting enough fruit and veg, and that half of families don’t get the chance to sit down and eat together every day.

The poll, of children in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, asked 7-12 year-olds questions about their daily diet.

Tricia Mucavele (1)Our Head of Nutrition, Patricia Mucavele says: “Some of these findings are really encouraging – almost all children say they’re trying to eat better, by doing things like drinking more water and eating more fruit and veg. So children’s understanding of what a healthy diet means seems to be improving.

“But that’s not always translating into how they actually eat day-to-day. That’s where good food in childcare and in schools has such a fundamental role – helping children to get into healthy habits from the very start. The next government has a big responsibility to protect and build on what’s working well on food in nurseries and schools, to make sure we’re giving all children the best start when it comes to nutrition.

“That’s also why our mission to get families cooking is so important. If we want more children to eat well now and to grow up to be healthier adults, we need to give them the essential life skill of being able to cook for themselves. That means careful monitoring of how cooking in the curriculum is making a difference, and investing in spreading basic cooking skills as a public health priority.”

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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Bringing it to the table

Tricia web

Are you an always, a sometimes or a never?

I’m talking, of course, about sitting at the table to eat as a family.

New research from the Journal of Epidemiology and Child Health looked at the eating habits of almost 2,400 children in south London.

On the day of their study, they found that children whose families said they always ate together round a table ate five portions of fruit and veg. Those whose families said they sometimes did almost got their 5-a-day, reaching 4.6 portions, while children whose families who said they never ate together at a table got to 3.3 portions. Read a good summary on BBC News.

It’s food for thought, and it’s an effect that we see time and time again in our work: children learn from our eating and cooking habits as adults, whether that’s as their parents or carers, childminders or nursery nurses, teachers, cooks, lunchtime supervisors and all sorts of others who work with children in the community from youth clubs, to Guide and Scout groups.

In fact, eating with others of any age often has a great ‘peer effect’ for encouraging them to try new things and eat healthier foods. It’s the principle behind all of the work to improve food at school. Children may turn up their noses at a particular vegetable, but if it’s in a dish that their friends have all got on their plates that day they are more likely to give it a go. We asked parents about this in a survey back in 2010, and 80% of those in our study said their children had tried foods in school that they never eat at home. Many of those foods were types of fruit and veg.

But it’s not just in the eating. Improving kids’ fruit and veg intake is about cooking, too. Research from our Let’s Get Cooking programme – which helps people of all ages improve their diet by learning to cook, and has created more than 5,000 cooking clubs all over the country – found that more than half of those who take part (58%) said they ate a healthier diet after learning to cook, and 92% use their new skills again back at home. A smaller study with very young club members as part of the research found that learning to cook may improve recognition of healthier foods, particularly bananas, tomatoes and peas, for four to eight year olds. And using food in play is one of our biggest tips for early years settings in our nationally-recognised guidelines for healthy food and drink for under-fives.

So if you’ve got a fussy eater in your house, or if your kids are getting nowhere near five portions of fruit and veg in a day, there are two things to put on your New Year’s resolutions list:

Eat together and get them cooking!

Tricia’s our Senior Research and Nutrition Manager. Email Tricia

Hungry + school = kids who won’t reach their potential


Doesn’t it feel like we’re hearing stories like this all too often at the moment? A Children’s Society poll of almost 600 teachers has found that many see children going hungry during the school day. Some of these children don’t qualify for free school meals and don’t have money from home to buy lunch.

The charity estimates that there are around 1.5 million children in England who would currently qualify for free school meals. According to the DfE’s most recent census data, almost 1.3 million children in England are actually registered for free school meals (January 2012 census). Our most recent annual survey estimates that just under 1.1m children are actually taking up their free school meals.

That means that:

• At least 200,000 children aren’t registered for free school meals, but may qualify for them
• Around 200,000 children are registered for free school meals but don’t take them up.

Crucially, we also know that at least some of those children who aren’t signed up are missing out because of confusion about how to get them. In our research on this, we’ve found that some families report not realising they have to register, or that they don’t know how, or that they need help with the process.

It’s a big concern, because we know that for many children their free meal at school can be the only proper meal of the day. Research shows – and any teacher will tell you – that when children eat better, they can perform better in class.

There’s been some great work to make registration for free school meals easier and we work with schools all over the country on making sure families know when they qualify – you’ll find lots of advice and ideas on this on our website. But a big part of getting more families to register for their free school meals is about making school meals the most popular option for lunchtime at school. If schools are able to serve up great food, in a dining room that kids want to spend time in, with enough time for kids to eat and relax for a bit at lunchtime without having to rush, take up of both paid and free meals tends to go up.

When more children who pay for meals are opting to eat in the canteen, we tend to see more children who qualify for free meals taking them up – the peer effect. So all of these issues are part of the much bigger picture; of trying to make school meals the option that every child wants to go for. That way, we can help make sure that a decent meal during the school day is getting to all of those children who most rely on it.

Claire’s our Media Manager. Email Claire.

Lunchtime changes giving you the chills?

It’s Halloween week – the perfect time to blog about some of the scary stories we’ve been emailed by parents in the last half term.

Three parents emailed us to say they were confused (and bemused) by the way their schools seemed to have started policies banning packed lunches with little warning or information, and about how they were using them.

One dad wrote to us to ask if this is allowed at all. Another father emailed to say his childrens’ school had refused to give them the packed lunches he’d sent them to school with, saying that they now had a policy of school meals only. When he checked the school’s lunch policy, this wasn’t mentioned anywhere. A mum dropped us a line to say she was in a similar dilemma.

Confused? Frustrated? Worried? So were these parents. We’re all agreed that we want children to have a good lunch at school: most teachers agree you can see the difference in a child’s ability to do well in class when they’ve eaten a decent meal (scientific studies show this too, including ours in primary and secondary schools, and this one which found that children in pilot areas where they were all able to have free school meals made up to 2 months more progress than their peers elsewhere).

That’s why our advice to every school is to be very clear about lunchtime policies, so that children’s nutrition doesn’t suffer. If your school’s thinking about starting something new at lunchtime or making a change, talk to parents about it first: see what they think, discuss any concerns they have and find a way to resolve them. Most important of all, keep parents informed – through your newsletter, your headteacher’s blog, your website, letters home, your Twitter feed – on any decisions that are made.

As a parent, if you’re not happy about lunchtime policies at your child’s school, you might want to start by talking to someone on the school’s leadership team (the head, the deputy or your child’s head of year) or to one of your school’s governors (parent governors are often a good start); they’re responsible for the policies in place at your child’s school. There’s strength in numbers, too, so see if other parents feel the same.

When it comes to policies which ban packed lunches, the Department of Education says that schools can set their own policies relating to food, and that can include requiring pupils to have a school lunch. But whatever the policy, the key is communicating it well.

Three top tips to remember:

• Research shows school meals are more nutritious than the vast majority of packed lunches, which is why some schools opt not to allow lunchboxes at all
• Parents of children having school meals often report that it helps with fussy eating. In one survey we did, 8 out of 10 mums and dads whose children have school meals told us that they’ve tried something in school which they never eat at home
• Even if your child is still really fussy or isn’t making very good choices from the canteen, school cooks and lunchtime supervisors can be your greatest ally. Have a chat with them and see if they can help encourage your child to have a go of something new – even little tastes will help.

Claire’s one of our nutritionists. Email Claire here. For advice on starting new school food policies, visit our website or contact our team of advisors.

Get your fruit juice facts here!

Another week, another children’s food story certain to leave lots of parents feeling seriously confused!

Fruit juice is one way to help your child reach the five portions of fruit and veg they need to eat each day, and to take in important nutrients like vitamin C.

But it’s easy to forget that fruit juice contains sugar too. This can contribute to tooth decay if children have too much, too often.

So here are my top tips about how to include fruit juice in your child’s diet:

Keep serving sizes sensible:

  • For one- to five-year-olds, a typical serving is about 50ml of unsweetened fruit juice, diluted with the same amount of water. Give them this with a meal, not with snacks or between meals – this helps to protect their teeth from the sugar and fruit acids in the juice. Doing it this way also helps children to absorb iron from their meal, thanks to the vitamin C in the juice
  • 150ml of unsweetened fruit juice for primary and secondary school-aged children is enough to give them one of their 5-a-day, and will give them all of their daily requirement for vitamin C. You can make the drink longer for an older child by mixing the juice with tap or sparkling water
  • Remember – however much fruit juice a child drinks, it can only ever count as one of their 5-a-day. That’s because fruit juice doesn’t contain all the nutritional benefits (like fibre) of fresh fruit, so it’s worth sticking to just one glass a day, and encouraging kids to eat lots of other types of fruit and veg as well.

Watch out for ‘fruit juice drinks’: these often look very similar to fruit juice, and have a similar name, but usually contain only a small amount of fruit juice. Sometimes there’s added sugar or sweeteners in them too.

Ask if your childcare provider is using our guidelines for healthy food and drinks in early years settings: these recommend tap water and milk as the only drinks you should give young children between meals to protect their teeth, and that diluted fruit juice should only be provided at mealtimes.

Try school meals: the National School Food Standards recommend tap water, fruit juice and milk – or combination drinks using milk, fruit juice and water – as healthier options when they get to school age.

Desserts can be another great way to get fruit into your child’s diet. Try our recipes for young children here and for older children in schools here.

And don’t forget to visit out Take Two campaign – click on the Facebook link to share your tips on getting children and teens to tuck into at least two portions of fruit and veg at lunchtime.

Claire’s one of our nutritionists – here to help anyone wanting advice on feeding children well. Email Claire.