With so many foods these days being put into the ‘unhealthy category’, Schools could be forgiven for wondering what it is they should be selling at their School Canteen. Once it was as simple as buying what sold, but today the responsibility on School canteen staff is to serve food which wholesome, tasty, economical and easy for children to eat.

We are continually warned about the increasing rates of diabetes (especially type 2), and the health risks associated with diabetes, and more generally with obesity. Too much of our food is high in sugar fat and salt – three major ingredients which the modern palate has been taught to like!

Armed with the recent findings on the dangers of hidden sugars (as well as those not hidden), School canteen staff might remove soft drinks, fruit juices, sauces such as tomato sauce, sweet yoghurt (especially the low fat varieties), as well as many ‘health food’ bars. The redeeming finding is that fat is not the evil is was once thought to be – that is of course if we eat it in moderate quantities.

As a service to our environment it is best not to sell bottled water (environmentally aware schools these days will have refill stations), and to some extent the jury is out on those drinks which are artificially sweetened. Other drinks to be cautious about are flavoured milks which contain high amounts of sugar. So what can your school canteen sell children to drink?

When you buy packaged food, it is all about checking labels. You will find that some drinks contain less sugar than others. Given that one teaspoon is about 4 grams of sugar you will soon be able to gain an idea of what drinks contain less sugar. The best option is to compare different brands of drinks, and different sorts of drinks, and then make a choice. Students will want to buy drinks – it would be a bland School Canteen which did not offer drinks – so find those with the least sugar (natural or otherwise), and the least chemical additives and sell these. It is the excesses which cause the problems.

Food should be as fresh as possible. Include as many vegetables, fruit and grains as possible. If you serve breakfast unsweetened yoghurt with low sugar museli or fresh fruit is an excellent choice. Porridge and weetbix may not be in fashion but they are nutritious and healthy. Fresh fruit salad can be served at any time of the day.

When making sandwiches or wraps use wholemeal bread or wholemeal wraps. They have a lower GI and provide greater nutritional value than refined bread and wraps. Include raw vegetables such as shredded carrot, cucumber and lettuce. Semi sundried tomato and grilled capsicum add variety.

School Canteens often include pasta and rice in hot meals. There are different varieties of pasta which include vegetables, and wholemeal rice is a tastier and healthier alternative to white rice. If you prepare fried rice, add vegetables and some form of protein. Hot corn cobs are great to have in school canteens – they are easy to prepare and a popular food.

The important thing is that School Canteens make the healthy options tasty, so that children buy them. Fresh vegetables taste better than frozen or processed ones – they may take more time to prepare but taste in important. Fresh fruit is an ideal food for canteens. Ensure that the fresh fruit is good, that the apples are crunchy, that the mandarins are juicy and that the bananas are firm. Taste the fruit before you put it on sale. The unfortunate thing with some fruit sold in School Canteens, is that it does not taste as good as it should. If you buy good fruit for your School Canteen, children will eat it. There are healthy options in food bars – they may cost a little more but this is money well spent.

It is our responsibility to make sure that our School Canteen food is nutritious, healthy and food which children want to eat.

About the Author

PhD in European Languages and Cultures (specialising in Literary Translation) Department of International Studies Macquarie University