What school lunches look like around the world
When it comes to school lunches, options differ drastically by each 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.
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Over the past few weeks, education news outlets have been dominated by stories of how schools have managed to safely reopen to all pupils, and how the majority of these pupils have been desperately eager to return to school, excited at the prospect of returning to a normal learning routine.
Whilst classroom learning is a key aspect of this routine, it’s important to take into consideration the effect of a positive lunchtime experience on a student’s ability to learn. As today marks the start of the British Nutrition Foundation's Healthy Eating Week, we’re looking at why nutrition must be a key priority for schools as the start of a new style of learning begins.
Importance of school meals during lockdown
When schools closed in March, this brought a period of unrest and disruption to the routine of many, especially to younger children who were still getting used to the normal school routine and the benefits that it brought. Whilst many have adapted, the issue of providing pupils, especially those eligible for free school meals and whose parents/guardians were made redundant, with a regular supply of nutritious meals was crucial for education professionals and highlighted the amazing work being done within the sector.
One example of this was the tireless effort put in by headteacher Zane Powles to hand-deliver 7,500 free school meals to his students in Grimsby. Another prominent case of the fight to provide children with free school meals was by footballer Marcus Rashford, who successfully called for the government to reverse a decision not to provide free school meal vouchers during the summer.
The admirable effort by those to help struggling families during lockdown only goes to show the importance of school meals, and how schools can provide a vital service in keeping pupils well-fed with delicious and nutritious meals. The crisis of child food poverty is only growing, with up to 1.5 million more children in England eligible for free school meals, according to the National Food Strategy. Therefore, the need to provide pupils with nutritious food during lunchtime is only heightened when many pupils rely on this meal as their main meal of the day, especially after months during which some pupils may have experienced very limited access to healthy food. Whilst many factors that affect a child’s ability to learn, providing them with a healthy lunch after months of uncertainty will be crucial in the effort to make up for time lost in the classroom.
Government regulations state that food served in schools and academies in England must meet standards that require the provision of good-quality meat, poultry or oily fish, fruit and vegetables, bread and other cereals and potatoes. Drinks with added sugar, as well as crisps, chocolate or sweets are banned in school meals and vending machines, as well as a limit of no more than 2 portions of deep-fried, battered, or breaded food a week. These regulations ensure that all the vital food groups are covered, providing pupils with healthy food that will keep their energy levels up and equip them with the tools to learn.
The new school lunchtime experience
Since schools reopened, the lunchtime experience differs by each school, with some schools operating on a ‘packed lunch’ only basis, whether that’s provided by the school or parents, other schools opting for pupils to each their lunch in the classroom, and other schools offering pre-order services from the canteen, ensuring pupils can still safely access hot school meals.
Pre-order software, including AMI’s Transact offering, allows pupils to pre-order their lunches ahead of time, reducing the need for queueing in the dining hall and therefore ensuring social distancing measures are abided by, which is becoming increasingly popular amongst schools across the UK and is looking to be a vital drive in keeping children well-fed at lunchtime during the new age of social distancing rules in schools.
Value of hot school meals
Vital government regulations over the content of school meals mean that every pupil eating a hot school meal, including those eligible for free school meals, has access to at least one nutritionally adequate meal during the day. Packed lunches, on the other hand, aren’t required to abide by these regulations, with research finding that only 2% of packed lunches meet school food standards (Evans et al, 2020).
Some may argue that packed lunches can be as nutritionally balanced as school meals, and whilst this is true in some cases, due to the lack of regulations over the content of lunchboxes, focusing on hot school meals is the easiest and most effective way of ensuring all the necessary dietary requirements are met for all children, as well as being a safer option for pupils suffering from food allergies.
"Serving a hot nutritious daily meal to pupils would mean that parents, schools, and their caterers would have more faith knowing that children are getting the food that they need. For many vulnerable children, their hot school meal is the only meal they have in the day. A simpler (and healthier) food offer would go a long way to ensure pupils are eating food which meets the mandated school meal standards rather than being lured away by the daily temptation of their favourite food. " Jeanette Orrey, co-founder of Food for Life.
Therefore, as we mark the beginning of Healthy Eating Week, ensuring hot school meals are on the menu during school lunchtimes will be a key driver in the fight for ensuring each child, regardless of their circumstances, are provided with consistent, good quality food as they settle back into their new school routine. And judging by the increase in schools switching to cashless payments and a ‘grab and go’ style of lunch service, pre-ordering software will be the future of the Covid-19 friendly school lunchtime experience.
To learn more about how you can get involved in BNF Healthy Eating Week, visit: https://bit.ly/366CYBh