What can we do to improve the food that is
served in schools and have healthier students?
Schools are uniquely positioned to promote consumption of healthy food as well as to teach cooking skills. The provision of healthy food ensures that the students eat what they learn about healthy eating in the classroom. Better food at school can also have positive impact on students’ performances. On the other hand, the ability to cook not only gives students the possibility to avoid processed food, but also the opportunity to become independent adults.
The 3E model for healthy school cafeterias
We’ve seen it too many times: teachers, parents, nutritionists, food caterers and even politicians discussing what food students should eat at school. But nobody ever asks those that will eat this food: the students themselves! I think that the students should instead be involved in the planning of the school menus. Together with other colleagues in Italy we have done this many times and invited the students to discuss what food should be served at the canteen and I’ve been surprised to see that they also asked for healthy food such as chickpeas. In Sweden every school has a committee called “Matråd” that discusses about the school cafeteria and where the students (including young children) are involved and can express their opinions.
It is easy: we all want to choose what we want to eat. Then why do we deny this possibility in the school cafeteria? Studies have shown that offering different fruit and vegetable choices at school meals (for instance by means of salad bars) can increase consumption. Also the position that is chosen for the salad bar influences the amount of vegetables that are consumed by students. If the bar is at the centre of the room rather than in a corner, students are more likely to take some vegetables. Also, giving the students the possibility to choose among more than one type of fruit, results in a higher consumption.
And here comes the main point of my strategy to increase consumption of healthy food in schools. We should teach students how to cook and let them do it as part of the school programme. This has been done in the Opus study that has been conducted in Denmark a few years ago. During that study, healthy meals based on Nordic tradition were prepared by chefs in collaboration with the students who, in turns, helped the chefs in the kitchen. The students that helped the chefs every day, served the meal to their peers. This intervention resulted in an improved nutrient quality of students’ diets and in a higher fish intake .
- Exchange information
It is always a good idea to invite the schools’ chefs and also the school dieticians to the classroom to discuss with the students and the teachers what can be prepared for the school lunches. Sometimes the students do not understand why certain foods that are healthy and tasty are not served. As an example of this, we might mention that some fruits get spoiled quite quickly like strawberries or that some foods have a high cost (like certain kinds of fish) and therefore are not offered by the catering company. By explaining these limitations it is possible to help the students understand that some choices taken by the school in relation to the cafeteria are not punitive but just practical. The idea of inviting chefs in particular, has been applied in the US, based on an idea of the First Lady. This initiative is called “Chefs Move to Schools” and has been very successful.
Finally, another idea that in my experience works very well is to organise open days. What do I mean with this? One day a year, the cafeteria opens to everyone among teachers, students and even family members who want to prepare a healthy meal together with the staff, working for the catering company that normally prepares food.
To constantly evaluate the service offered at the school cafeteria allows identifying and rapidly solving any possible issue related to foods that are not liked by the students (or the teachers). On a regular basis the school should collect (for instance by means of questionnaires) opinions and suggestions and keep track of foods that are not well accepted and try to satisfy at least some of the requests. In Sweden the teachers fill in questionnaires specifically designed by the National Food Authority in collaboration with the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. This tool, called “Skolmat” (school food), is very useful to collect information from several schools in the country, but is also an important way for the authorities to give a personalised feedback to the schools.
Weekly special days
One day a week should be “special” meaning that it should be dedicated either to fish dishes or vegetable dishes. A good idea is to have a meat-free day when only vegetable dishes are prepared. Before introducing this idea, make sure you discuss in class the health and environmental advantages of reducing meat intake.
New food of the month
It is important to keep stimulating the students’ curiosity by proposing new foods every month. These can maybe decided in class, their health properties can be discussed with the teachers and finally a dish that contains the new food should be offered at the cafeteria.
Healthy food tastings
This is a nice idea for a social event where new foods can be prepared and tasted together with the students. It is not necessary to prepare very complicated recipes; even a salad based on a new ingredient that the students have never tried (e.g. tofu) is good enough.
This is a great idea both from the point of view of physical activity and healthy nutrition. There is nothing better than eating the vegetables that you have grown yourself. The disadvantage is that a lot of space is needed and not all schools have it. However, one alternative is to cultivate herbs and some vegetables in pots.
Take home messages
The students are the protagonists: make sure you involve them in the decisions of what is eaten at the school cafeteria!
Better communication: schools should try to establish a better communication between students, teachers, the cafeteria staff and the dieticians who plan the meals every day. Most of the time complaints come from misunderstandings and bad communications.
Get constant feedback and revise: the feedback should be obtained both from the cafeteria users and from the authorities in order to set up a system that ensures a constant improvement of the service.
That’s all folks! I hope I have given you some ideas to improve the experience at your school cafeteria. Feel free to contact me if you want me to help apply this idea in your specific context.
 Finkelstein, E.; French, S.; Variyam,J.N., et al., Pros and cons of proposed interventions to promote healthy eating. Am J Prev Med 27(3S)( 2004) 163 –171.
 Hollar D, Messiah SE, Lopez-Mitnik G, Hollar TL, Almon M, Agatston AS. Effect of a two-year obesity prevention intervention on percentile changes in body mass index and academic performance in low-income elementary school children. Am J Public Health. 2010 Apr;100(4):646-53.
 Prelip M, Kinsler J, Thai CL, Erausquin JT, Slusser W. Evaluation of a school-based multicomponent nutrition education program to improve young children’s fruit and vegetable consumption. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2012 Jul-Aug;44(4):310-8.
 Andersen R, Biltoft-Jensen A, Christensen T, Andersen EW, Ege M, Thorsen AV, Dalskov SM, Damsgaard CT, Astrup A, Michaelsen KF, Tetens I. Dietary effects of introducing school meals based on the New Nordic Diet – a randomised controlled trial in Danish children. The OPUS School Meal Study. Br J Nutr. 2014 Apr 8:1-10.