Children’s diets and school dinners, in particular, are headline news; of interest not just to parents, but to head teachers; a health service facing an obesity time bomb; and, given the chance to express their opinions, young diners.
For Steve and the team at Cactus Kitchens, school lunches were the social if not the culinary highlight of the day. Redoubtable dinner ladies, spam fritters and Arctic Roll all feature in their collective memory along with maggots in the beans and congealed custard. And, if the dining hall doubled as a gym, there was cold mash on bare feet in the afternoon P.E lesson.
So we were delighted to discover that the guide to School Food Standards, mandatory for maintained schools since January 2015, shares our cookery school’s values: “Eating in school should be a pleasurable experience: time spent sharing good food with peers and teachers.”
For most of us, school meals are our first experience of communal eating outside the home (for some children their first experience of eating around a table). And, as Steve points out, “For many children, their school lunch may be the only hot nutritious meal they get so it needs to count.” (A typical lunch provides 30% of a child’s daily nutrients.)
The evidence is incontrovertible: better food produces better academic results and better behaviour in school. The effect is most striking in schools that have put good food at their heart and made it as important as the 3Rs.
When nine-year-old Scottish schoolgirl, Martha Payne began blogging about the unappetizing contents of her plastic, aeroplane-style lunch plate she kicked off a global conversation that resulted in her raising thousands of pounds for lunch charity, Mary's Meals and invitations to attend international food symposiums with the likes of René Redzepi (but not before the local education authority had tried and failed to silence her).
Fantastic news! Mary’s Meals is now reaching 1,187,104 children in some of the world’s poorest communities with a nutritious daily meal in school. This is thanks to the continued generosity of supporters like you all over the world. You are all AMAZING, as are the many children who can now look forward to a brighter future. #MarysMeals #SchoolMeals #charity
Concern at the 1,655,000 children in England starting secondary school overweight or obese in the last decade, has made school dinners the focus of parliamentary committees and Ofsted reports and put them in the vanguard of improving the nation’s health. But the school meals’ service remains the Cinderella of the food world.
About 3.1 million school meals are prepared and served daily by a brigade of 660,000 cooks and kitchen assistants (more than the workforce of the Royal Navy).
For a Michelin-starred chef turning over a few hundred covers in several sittings over 90 minutes is a daunting task. School cooks have the added challenge of producing appetizing, healthy meals that adhere to national standards on a budget of under £2.00 a head for some of the pickiest and most opinionated customers in the land. That has not put off ex-NOPI chef, Nicole Pisani who has swapped a restaurant kitchen for a school canteen.
But as even the very best chefs discover, it can be a struggle persuading children to eat their greens. Steve’s daughter loves fruit and “will eat it all day given the chance. But [getting her to eat] vegetables that are not sweet in flavour is a real challenge.” The result Steve thinks of weaning her on fruit purees with little vegetable content.
The chef is introducing his young son to green vegetables and savoury foods from the start. The lesson for parents and school cooks Steve believes is introducing children to a wide range of foods and flavours early and often.
“I [also] think it is important to take children to restaurants…always let them try something off your plate if they are interested. Surprisingly, our daughter was happy to eat prawns and pig's head when we were at Chef Albert Roux's restaurant!”
Steve should take heart and persevere with the veg. Researchers at University College London report it takes between 10-15 tastings before children start to enjoy unfamiliar food.
And Steve’s children may well grow the produce that appears on their school lunch plates themselves. Tinned peas are off the menu as more schools have vegetable plots. Some of the most enthusiastic young gardeners are to be found at inner city schools inspired by chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, the founder of The Edible Schoolyard Project.
Adults have always fretted about how to feed children. Two centuries ago the guardians of the Foundling Hospital in London were taking a keen interest in the diet of their charges. They invested generously in a diet of whole milk, meat and fresh vegetables to give the orphans the best chance in life. It’s taken over 200 years, but school caterers are at last catching up with these enlightened views.