The development of varied and nutritious menus in schools

During a ‘healthy eating round table’, with ‘The Caterer’ back in May 2008, a discussion took place all about winning the school meals war in primary schools. When discussing the Government’s new nutritional standard, our consultant Julian Edwards FIH FCSI CFCO, CEO of Allergen Accreditation, commented “that while most schools were well on the way to achieving the regulations, some were still a long way off – while others might well openly flout the standards”.

Julian also added, “There is also a certain amount of prohibition going on with the under-counter selling of cakes, however most of the major improvements have already taken place and there is more fresh food coming into school kitchens now than there has ever been. Every caterer I know is working very hard to achieve the standards, with many employing nutritionists to ensure that they are fully prepared for September”.

Spring forward to 2021, thirteen years since the government imposed statutory regulations on nutritional content in lunches, and we have a very different picture.

These days there is no legal requirement to provide evidence of nutrient content in lunches, but caterers are required to manage their food offering in line with a national plan that encourages low salt, fat and sugar and sets goals for what foods can and cannot be sold to pupils.

During the late 00’s however, with a surge of dietician and nutritionist support, caterers were able to explore and learn about food groups and develop recipes which still stand the test of time today.

The use of lentils in tomato bases and sauces is common and provides B vitamins, iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc which can enhance a dishes nutrient content and makes for a healthier component to the vegetarian option. This ‘stealth’ approach is an excellent method to build in nutrients, but all must be wary to always communicate ‘stealth ingredients’ so people with allergies know what’s in the dish, for example, ‘Pasta with rich tomato and lentil sauce.’

One of the most significant challenges for creating successful healthy options is marketing the meals. Essentially, food and drinks need to be saleable to balance the books and reduce plate waste.  A natural deterrent for many is the term ‘healthy option.’  It seems bizarre in an education setting but if the main fish, meat, or plant-based option of the day is beautifully presented with accompaniments and served as the ‘street food’ option in a rustic (re-useable) bowl- well, these will fly off the counter!

It is likely that the best method of developing and selling healthy food is to use the basic menu items that are always popular, such as roast, and fish and chip days. If you ensure the best ingredients; fresh oil (for frying), steaming the veg, homemade sauces, part steaming the meat-before roast, fruit-based puddings, and sundries all under the control of the chef, food that is cooked healthily is the nucleus of a healthy and nutritious school meals management system.

Feeding youngsters is challenging and despite conflicting opinions on this matter, the salad bar DOES work! Composites and regular favourites in abundance with older children (and staff) helping themselves makes for a great lunchtime experience.  It also allows the fussiest of eaters, who barely touch the main service, to fill the rest of their plate up with goodies from the salad bar.

Going back to basics when planning a week’s menu, school meal providers always do well when they consider the key nutrients for all lunches and make sure that recipes achieve the right minimums and maximums, table below:

Interestingly, calorie information may become mandatory for some catering businesses and those that have continued their understanding of nutritional content will be best placed to achieve these new regulations in 2022.

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Published on November 8th, 2021

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