People are increasingly aware of the need for, and the benefits of a healthy, well-balanced diet. We are also encouraged to care for the environment which sustains our way of life, including the production of food. This growing awareness has led to an overhaul of practices within the humble school canteen. As a School operated facility, canteens are expected to set the example by offering food that is fresh, healthy, and doesn’t cost the earth.

Successful canteens aim to:

  • Provide nutritious, affordable, tasty, and easy to make meals and snacks.
  • Ensure that food is prepared and served in environmentally friendly ways.
  • Turn a profit. Indeed, many schools rely on canteen revenue to fund initiatives and equipment for their students.

Introducing a Balanced Diet for School Students

The Australian government introduced compulsory guidelines to control and reduce the sale of highly processed, fatty and sugary foods in canteens. In the future, the government plans to implement a new healthy eating scheme for Australian School Canteens. This programme will apply a Health Star Rating to all items on the menu, and classify each item as “everyday” or “occasional.” Caffeinated beverages and soft drinks will be banned, and portion sizes controlled. Fewer junk food items shall be offered, and these shall be hidden from view, while freshly prepared foods, fruits, and vegetables will be prominently displayed. This is part of the government’s commitment to reduce obesity in a country that currently has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the world.

Eating well also improves students’ learning abilities, and helps them to study efficiently and effectively. Growing children need protein-rich foods that produce amino acids and improve brain function. For example, serotonin, a chemical found in brown rice, red meat, and carrots, helps with the regulation of memory, mood and learning. Tyrosine-rich foods like chicken, dairy products, and avocados play a crucial role in transferring lived experience to long-term memory. They also release dopamine which boosts motivation and energy levels. Complex carbohydrates found in whole grain cereals and breads, pasta, fruits, and vegetables provide sustained energy, and increase a person’s mental alertness and ability to focus over long periods of time.

Conversely, indulging in caffeine and sugary treats on a regular basis will lower dopamine levels, resulting in decreased motivation, cognitive function, and powers of concentration. It makes sense for schools to promote a healthy diet, given that good eating and learning habits are interlinked.

 The Challenges Presented by Healthy School Canteen Food

Offering healthy canteen food does not come without its challenges, however. Many children and adults are fussy eaters, and prefer to consume “junk food”, as opposed to healthier alternatives. As someone who enjoys unhealthy food on occasions, I think the main issue is one of taste. Taste is the primary consideration for most children when selecting snacks. Green vegetables are often viewed as bland and tasteless, particularly when boiled. Fruit can be underwhelming as opposed to a chocolate bar.

Present healthy foods in appetising ways. This can be done by pairing green vegetables with popular favourites like roast chicken, and seasoning them with garlic, almonds or feta cheese. A food item’s nutritional value also depends on how it is cooked. Stir-frying is a quick cooking method which preserves vegetable nutrients. Unhealthy ingredients can be substituted for healthier ones in recipes; for example, corn tortillas are a healthier alternative to traditional flour tortillas.

Another issue is that healthy food is often more expensive than high calorie snacks. For example, a 2014 Australian study compared the prices of 200 online canteen menus, and found that the average price of a salad was considerably higher than that of a meat pie. Costs can be reduced by purchasing in season produce, and discounted imperfect produce where possible. If viable, Schools can encourage students to care for vegetable plots on the grounds. Another option is for governments to subsidise healthy food options, particularly for students in lower socio-economic areas.

Eco-Friendly Ways to Prepare Food

The Best School Canteens make a commitment to prepare and serve food in an eco-friendly way. This involves recycling cans, bottles, and plastic or cardboard containers. Having water stations where students can refill their water bottles is a better option than selling bottled water.  Art and craft teachers can reuse materials such as egg cartons in the classroom. Plastic can be minimised by doing away with single-serve condiment packs and choosing packaging made from recycled materials. Buying in bulk is another way to reduce waste. Some schools also use food scraps to feed farm animals, either on the grounds or send them to local farms. Another option is to compost the scraps and start a worm farm.

The transportation, preparation and storage of food is energy-intensive. It uses non-renewable resources such as electricity and water. Energy efficient appliances and rinsing vegetables in a half-filled sink rather than under running water, reduces the carbon footprint. Using locally grown and produced ingredients is preferable.

The importance of Feedback   

A successful canteen takes into account the needs and desires of students, parents, and staff. If a beetroot and feta salad sold at a school fete is a hit, make it in the canteen. If the school community hungers for an unhealthy snack, see if you can substitute unhealthy ingredients with healthier alternatives and create the same great taste. A great canteen is open to suggestions from the school community, offers a variety of fresh, healthy foods at reasonable prices, and implements eco-friendly policies and procedures.

About the Author

PhD in European Languages and Cultures