How to make healthy choices from the school canteen

School canteen menu giving you stress?
School canteen menu giving you stress? 

My kids spend a week with me, and then a week with their dad. We’re all well accustomed to this routine and for the most part it works. However one of the things I have had to accept is that I can’t be in control of what the boys are eating on their week away from me. For a passionate lifestyle medicine expert this is at times not easy to accept. I just have to hope that my time with their dad has left some good nutrition messages and the boys are also now old enough to understand the importance of eating well. But they’re kids and if given the opportunity to eat sugary, salty or otherwise processed foods that they like, they’ll do it.

On their week with me I pack their lunches to take to school. Along with many of you I go through the what to pack dilemmas, feel frustration when lovingly made sandwiches or homemade muffins come back uneaten (“I forgot to eat/I was playing/ I wasn’t hungry”) but at least I know what foods are given to them and can ensure that they are getting a healthy array of the right ones. On their ‘dad week’ they eat from the school canteen. So that got me thinking about how as parents we can ensure we are making the best choices when we order from the canteen, and how we can influence the canteens to take a healthy approach to the business of feeding our kids.

The government is well aware of the importance of providing nutritious food to our kids. To that end they have provided guidelines for school canteens to follow. In NSW we have the Fresh Tastes @ School NSW Healthy School Canteen Strategy. In 2004 all schools were sent a copy of the Menu Planning Guide, and these are still available for download. Essentially this guide categorised foods and menu items into GREEN foods that should fill most of the menu, AMBER foods that can be chosen or put on the menu occasionally, and RED foods that canteens should not offer on their menus. The nutrient criteria for these classifications are essentially based on saturated fat, sugar, salt and fibre. Now of course this is not fail-proof – there are foods that are wrongly discriminated against, while others slip through the net. However we have to start somewhere. It’s based on the Australian Dietary Guidelines for Children and so as an overall guide this approach is pretty good to establish the best foods for our kids growth and development.

The Healthy Kids Association takes things a step further. They have developed Green and Amber nutrient criteria for 53 different food categories. Food manufacturers can apply for their product to be assessed, it is then listed on the site and the Health Kids Registered Product logo can be used, indicating Green or Amber status. This approach is fantastic for parents and caregivers. The system is not flawless but it takes the guesswork out of the equation and steers everyone onto the right path. The problem is the school canteens have to use the system for it to work.

Our school does have a green 'G' or an amber 'A' next to the items on the menu, with the advice that you should not order the amber foods more than a couple of times a week. The trouble is out of the hot food section there are only 2 green choices and 14 amber, while in ‘snacks’ there are 4 green choices and 15 amber. Apple juice gets a green 'G' - not a food that kids should have every day – and other items are contradictory such as cheese getting a ‘green’ under sandwiches, but an ‘amber’ under salad plates. Confusing to parents? You bet.

So where does that leave us? If your school does not appear to be using your state’s version of the above, ask them why not. Campaign to the school to encourage them to come on board and use the fantastic resources supplied by organisations such as the Healthy Kids Association. Then take care when choosing from the menu. Remember the key to a healthy diet is first and foremost that we (and our kids) eat wholesome minimally processed food and in enough variety to provide all of the nutrients we need. Look for a healthier choice of bread or wrap (wholegrain is best), include a protein-rich food in the filling (meat, fish, beans or cheese) and somewhere in the lunch fresh fruit and vegies. In winter the canteen can be a real bonus by offering hot foods. Soups are generally a terrific option but forward thinking canteens may offer baked potatoes with beans, homemade pies with healthy fillings, casseroles or pasta dishes that all meet the green criteria.

Lifestyle medicine is about doing all we can to prevent disease, while optimising health and wellbeing. How we eat is a key part of the things that fall under our control and it starts with our kids. Put healthy eating at the top of their agenda and we’re setting them up to part of a healthy Australian future.


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