What school lunches look like around the world
School lunch options differ drastically by country, from four-course meals consisting of roast beef, tabbouleh and apple tart in France to spaghetti with seafood sauce and fish fillet au gratin in Italy, each country offers its own unique meal choices for school pupils.
Children across the globe are offered a variety of foods to tuck into at lunchtime, and we’re looking at what school lunches around the world look like and how these differ in terms of nutrition and variety.
Starting with the home country of AMI’s headquarters, UK’s school canteens have seen drastic changes to the food provided over the years, with a dramatic shift toward more nutritional food in recent years, thanks to Jamie Oliver’s Feed Me Better campaign in the noughties. Oliver’s campaign increased the standards of school meals and reduced saturated fat, sugar and salt present in the food served to children.
Today, lunch options in the UK are far more varied, with an increased number of options for different dietary preferences, and Research by the Children’s Food Trust shows that school meals in the UK are now consistently more nutritious than packed lunches, providing children with a better foundation for good health.
Typical hot school lunches include vegetarian lasagne, pasta bake, fresh salads, jam roly-poly and more; fresh, healthy options with some old classics added in.
Known for its culinary delights, France offers its pupils slightly more decadent options, including brie, steak, and apple tart to name a few, whilst adhering to strict nutritional regulations concerning portion sizes, nutritional composition, and cooking methods.
For example, starters containing more than 15% fat can be served no more than 4 out of 20 days, which means that salads, grilled chicken with grains and even roast guinea fowl make regular appearances on French school menus.
As a nation with a healthier, and perhaps more inclusive attitude toward food, it is no surprise that Italians focus on setting up children for healthy eating habits in adult life, and school lunches are the perfect way to promote healthy eating practices. Guidelines state that Italian school lunches must include a starchy dish such as rice or pasta, a main course such as meat, fish, cheese, two or more vegetable side dishes, and plenty of fruit.
Besides, Italian law is much stricter regarding unhealthy food on school menus and forbids cafeterias from serving deep-fried food such as chips and fried chicken. Therefore, popular lunch items include minestrone, mushroom risotto, and the occasional scoop of gelato.
Unlike the other countries in this list, lunch is considered the main meal of the day in Greece, which means pupils often eat lunch at home or bring a packed lunch into school and therefore, many schools don’t offer subsidized school lunches. However, schools that do serve lunch offer options such as baked chicken with orzo, cucumber and tomato salad, stuffed vine leaves and yoghurt with fruit for dessert.
Research shows that receiving free or reduced-price school lunches reduce food insecurity, obesity rates, and poor health, and what sets Sweden apart from the other countries is the fact that since 1997, all children in the country have access to a free hot school lunch, which consists of a hot meal, salad buffet, bread and a drink, with vegetarians options available to all.
Desserts and soft drinks, however, are not served, and options such as pizza and deep-fried food have been removed in recent years, with a focus on healthy and sustainable meal options such as meat or vegetable stew with potatoes, pasta with sauce, and knäckebröd, Sweden’s famous crispy bread.
(The Japan Guy)
In Japan, school lunches are offered to nursery and middle school children and are served in the classroom, with an emphasis on nutrition education and teaching pupils how to cook healthy food from scratch and making students aware of the nutritional components of the food they’re eating.
Unsurprisingly, Japan has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world, which is likely a result of offering pupils food such as miso soup with pork, rice with grilled fish, milk, and dried fruit for dessert.
South Korea is another country known for its healthy school lunch offerings and emphasis on health education. Since pupils are encouraged to partake in various extracurricular activities after school, pupils need to be served healthy lunch options that will sustain them into the evening. Popular dishes include fried rice with tofu, kimchi, fish soup and mixed green vegetables.
Last but certainly not least, America is a country famous for its plethora of junk food offerings and fast food outlets on every corner. In US schools, the National School Lunch Programme provides low-cost or free school lunches to 31 million students at more than 100,000 schools per day, and meals must meet the nutritional standards based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
However, tight budgets and unhealthy school vendors have meant that lunches served in some US schools (but not all) are highly processed and lacking in fresh fruits and vegetables. These lunches often look like popcorn chicken with French fries, mashed potatoes, and for dessert, fruit cups and chocolate chip cookies.
Resources for schools:
Over the past two years, the Coronavirus pandemic has caused widespread chaos and disruption across the country, perhaps most notably to children and staff in education.
Since March 2020, UK children have spent months in and out of local and national lockdowns. These disruptions resulted in an unprecedented amount of time missed from the classroom and a nationwide appeal to increase the standards of home food parcels for free school meal kids who missed out on their regular hot and healthy meals that would normally be served from the canteen.
Despite the hardships and challenges that everyone in education catering has faced, it’s been brilliant to see how the industry has bounced back since reopening.
Food Parcels and School Responses
In January of this year, one mother took to Twitter to express her shock over the quality of a food parcel she had received. The image, which was shared 15,000 times on social media, sparked a huge discussion across the UK about the quantity and quality of food distributed to the homes of children claiming free school meal provision.
In response to the criticism, some schoolteachers and caterers began stepping in to help struggling children and parents from their own pockets, showing the incredible kindness of those working in education.
One school staff member, Zane Powels, donated 7,500 meals in total alongside laptops to assist vulnerable children whilst they were learning at home. The hero from Western Primary School in Grimsby was given an MBE for his amazing efforts, delivering 138 meals a day to children - walking a total of 550 miles during last year’s first lockdown.
Another team of school caterers from Thomas Deacon Education Trust in Peterborough also pulled together to deliver 600 meal parcels over four weeks. Catering Operations Manager for TDET, Michael Dove, said: “It has been an honour to support our local community throughout this pandemic. We understand that food plays an important role in enabling our pupils to achieve their very best. For some children, the meal they would usually have at school would be their only hot meal of the day and we must continue to provide this for them in the best way we can.”
This collective effort of school caterers lead to a nationwide review of the school meal packages, prompting change and helping to protect vulnerable children at a time where they needed it most.
Reopening School Kitchens
When schools returned, the regular lunch service that everyone had known had been changed completely. New social distancing measures were put in place, and more schools started to implement pre-ordering solutions to allow for a safer and simpler grab-and-go system.
Not only could thousands of vital school caterers return to working at full capacity, but the pause from ordinary operations has allowed the industry to revaluate its approaches towards sustainability and food waste.
A report produced by Footprint Intelligence which focused on conquering challenges in education catering during COVID-19, discovered that 75% of foodservice professionals believed that sustainability had been side-lined because of the pandemic and a further 96% reported that COVID-19 had increased the use of disposables. But there is hope! The same people noted that other solutions are proven to work including existing crockery and reusable options such as bento boxes and how there was now the momentum to change a broken system.
The report concluded that with the learnings of the pandemic considered, there is no better time than now to begin future-proofing the school lunch service for the benefit of the planet. Whether it be through trailing a plant-based menu, implementing pre-ordering solutions, or pushing for policy changes, the resilience from the education catering industry throughout these tough times has meant that it now can bounce back better than ever before.
Celebrating the Industry
Finally, it’s been a difficult year, so celebrating the work of the industry is paramount. With awards such as The LACA Awards For Excellence and the Public Sector Catering Awards on the calendar, these events will allow us to celebrate the unsung heroes of the pandemic and push the industry to even greater heights as it bounces back to its former glory.
We can’t wait to see what happens next.
When presented with a slice of pizza or a salad, most pupils will likely choose the pizza. For many students, the fast, greasy, and fried option will ultimately be more appealing.
When faced with this reality, combined with the ever-increasing accessibility of fast, takeaway foods from outlets such as Deliveroo and JustEat, schools and parents face increasing challenges to get pupils to make healthier eating choices in schools. At ami Education, we’re looking at simple and practical ways to encourage healthy eating in schools and the impact on pupils.
Emphasise nutrition education
Many of us understand how the food we eat impacts our everyday life, including our concentration levels, mood, skin, hair, and even sleep. However, some pupils, especially those without an active interest in food and nutrition, risk not understanding the full extent to which the food they put in their bodies affects their life.
Schools, parents, and guardians can take an active role in educating pupils about nutrition and the impact that a healthy diet has on their ability to learn, as well as their life outside of the classroom.
Focusing on how food can make us feel and demonstrating how the choices we make regarding food directly affects the way we behave enables action-based learning which pupils can apply to their everyday life.
For example, demonstrating how switching from white pasta to wholewheat pasta can keep us fuller for longer and therefore reduce the risk of excess snacking and how simple changes can make a significant impact and encourages pupils to take an active role in their health.
Food labels and online resources
Nutrition and allergen information on food labels is mandatory. With Natasha’s Law soon to come into effect, which will require all food businesses, including school caterers, to include accurate and in-depth ingredient lists on food labels, pupils must learn what this information means to them.
Nutrition information can help us to make informed food choices, and educating pupils on how to read and process food labels is crucial, especially if we want pupils to carry healthy eating habits into adulthood.
In the classroom, teachers can provide worksheets for pupils to fill in and compare food labels from different products. Food A Fact Of Life, managed by the British Nutrition Foundation, which provides free educational resources for nutrition education, suggests providing pupils with clean packaging from a range of standard and healthy food options.
The pupils can read and compare food labels and discuss the findings with their classmates, such as the first ingredient listed in each product, compare the sugar and fat contents, and why some products are more likely to contain higher amounts of sugars than others.
Online resources are not only available to schools but also to parents and guardians. Websites such as Change4Life, launched in 2009 as part of a national goal set out in the government’s Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives initiative, is designed to ensure parents and guardians have the essential support and tools they need to make healthier choices for their family.
Change4Life provides fun activities, recipes, and a range of food facts to help educate families on nutrition and provide a fun and interactive way for children to learn about a healthy lifestyle. Visit the Change4Life website to access these resources.
School dinners vs packed lunches
Whilst school catering teams strive to provide nutritious and tasty lunches to help power pupils through the day, the prevalence of packed lunches is a challenge for schools aiming to meet strict nutritional standards.
In UK schools, there is currently no government guidance on packed school lunches. Whilst individual schools in England can decide their policy on food brought in from home, compared with hot school meals required to meet strict nutritional standards, packed lunches face fewer restrictions and increase the likelihood of unhealthy food brought in.
Research conducted by the Children’s Food Trust in 2013 compared hot school meals against packed lunches following new compulsory school food standards. The research found that school meals are now consistently more nutritious than packed lunches, giving children who eat them a better foundation for good health.
For pupils of all ages, opting for hot school lunches where possible ensure their lunch choices will contain:
- High-quality meat, poultry or oily fish
- Fruit and vegetables
- Bread, other cereals and potatoes
Parents and pupils can also rest assured that restrictions for hot school meals apply to:
- Drinks with added sugar, crisps, chocolate, or sweets
- Limits of no more than two portions of deep-fried, battered, or breaded food a week
Offer a familiar ordering experience for pupils
Technology plays a significant part in our everyday lives, especially for secondary school students. With easily accessible food delivery apps like Uber Eats and Deliveroo on every mobile phone, providing a solution that competes with these out-of-the-gate spending options and encouraging pupils back in the dining hall has never been easier.
Technology like ami’s Infinity+ Order app breaks the confines of the school dining hall and enables pupils to pre-order their school meals directly from their mobile phone, anytime, anywhere. Infinity+ Order offers secondary school pupils a familiar food ordering method whilst providing a host of other benefits to pupils and school staff, including:
- Reduced lunch queues - pupils pre-order their meals ready to collect at lunchtime
- Pupils can view their live cashless balance and previous transaction history anytime, anywhere
- Helps reduce food wastage by informing school catering teams of what to prepare in advance
- Reporting suite assists with stock control and trend predictions
From ground to fork
An increasing number of UK schools are now dedicating school ground spaces to growing fresh fruit and vegetables to serve in the school dining hall.
This new teaching method encourages pupils to make healthy eating choices in school by involving them in where their food comes from and teaching about food production outside of the classroom and the overall process from ground to fork.
For establishments with ground space to spare, providing areas for pupils to grow fresh fruits and vegetables teaches them to take an active interest in the food they eat.
Teaching pupils the value of growing their food encourages students to opt for lunch choices they grew and provides freshly grown, organic foods that appeal to students.
One UK school pioneering the way in growing and rearing its own produce is Charlton Manor Primary School, based in South-East London. Its pupils grow figs, oranges, tomatoes, grapes, and kiwis. There are also chickens and three beehives on-site, whilst the school has a campaign team made up of year 5 and 6 pupils to raise awareness about healthy diets.
“Charlton is a brilliant example of a school bringing together gardening and healthy eating. With vision and a bit of dedication, any school can get growing." Chris Collins, Head of Organic Horticulture for Garden Organic.
Encouraging students to make healthy choices in school can often seem like an uphill battle. With these simple tips and a wealth of online resources available for schools and parents, we can all get involved with inspiring the next generation to take control over their health, both inside and outside of the classroom.
Interested in learning more about Infinity+ Order? Get in touch to learn more about how pre-ordering can benefit your school.