As kids head back to school, there are all sorts of good things to look forward to: getting back on a regular schedule, resuming in-person education and getting to be in the same space as their mates.

Even though students returned to class last school year, the ongoing pandemic and necessary reversions to online learning made last year one not to remember. This year, with no lockdowns foreseen, the return to normal might just be the sentiment that defines this school year.

Another such sentiment, this one maybe not so pleasant: regimented diets.

Long before COVID ruined life as we knew it, the obesity epidemic was making headlines all over the world. Childhood obesity statistics, particularly those in the UK are frightening.

All the efforts to combat childhood obesity were undone by the sudden, forced abandonment of our routines. We snacked on whatever we wanted, eating however much we wanted whenever we wanted.

School lunches being what they are, not only going is back to school good for our mental health and social life, it's also good for our overall physical health.

As we get back into the swing of school, let's talk about what we'll eat.

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Government Regulations on School Lunches

Countering the obesity epidemic has forced the government, the Department for Education and schools across the nation to consider what foods and drinks should be available to students throughout the school day.

Tempting as it is to boost profits by selling fare that students want - sugary drinks and foods of questionable nutrition, the powers that be prefer instead to set the example when it comes to quality meals served in schools.

Thus, throughout the UK, serving deep-fried foods is limited to no more than twice per week. Sugary drinks - colas, sports drinks and juices with added sugars, along with crisps, sweets and chocolates will not be available either in school vending machines or as a part of school meals.

The general guidelines for meals served in schools are as follows:

  • a high-quality protein: Omega-3-rich fish, poultry or lean meat
  • some form of grains: bread, cereal and the like
  • some form of carbohydrate: potatoes and other starchy vegetables
  • vegetables
  • fruit

Note that the fish falls under the same rule regarding deep-fried foods; any battered or breaded food must not be offered more than twice per week.

These are the general guidelines. Now, let's look at individual countries' rules for healthy eating in school.

Also, find out how schools are managing COVID this year...

Schools must have space available for safe eating and provide healthy food
Schools are required to provide a safe environment and healthy food for students' lunches. Photo credit: agriculturede on Visualhunt

England

Compliance with the 2014 School Food Regulation requirements means that all students must be provided with a safe, social environment in which to eat lunch, whether they bring a packed lunch or buy their lunch at school.

Schools are not mandated to serve hot meals but it's recommended that they do so to ensure that every child has at least one hot meal per day.

Milk will be provided at least once a day. Students under five years of age will be served whole milk; students above that age will be served either reduced-fat milk or lactose-reduced milk.

This is one more good-to-know nugget if your child is starting primary school this year.

These guidelines and regulations apply to any food and drink served during the school day and up to 6 pm. They cover breakfast clubs, mid-morning break and after-school clubs, as well as vending services and tuck shops.

The Food Information Regulations (2014) specify that all food businesses including schools must make known all potential allergens in the foods they serve. In schools, this measure helps prevent a child from possibly suffering an allergic reaction to food served in schools, whether prepared on campus or catered.

These regulations apply to all maintained schools and certain non-maintained special schools, academies, free schools and pupil referral units.

Scotland

While Scottish schools follow the same general guidelines set forth by the UK government, select schools have added oversight through their partnership with the Soil Association. The scheme, called Food for Life, helps to ensure that all school food is nutritious and fresh, locally sourced and free of additives.

School menus include any combination of meat/fish, grains, fruit and veg, and milk. Currently, Scotland schools are considering adding vegan options to their menu.

Wales

Welsh students benefit from the extensively developed Healthy Eating in Schools (Wales) programme. In many ways, it mirrors the UK's guidelines but it goes beyond a healthy lunch to detail what healthy food and drink throughout the school day must be.

These regulations specify minimum/maximum values of 13 target nutrients and energy, distributed throughout the schools' weekly menus. Like the UK rules, it lists foods that must be available as well as those that must be restricted and disallowed between breakfast time and 6 pm.

School nutrition programmes are overseen by Food in Schools coordinators, in partnership with the Welsh government.

Northern Ireland

The Education Authority of Northern Ireland relies on a school catering service to provide school meals, freshly prepared in the schools' kitchens, by trained, local staff. They are prepared with an eye toward nutrition and value. Special dietary needs are addressed; their menus are loaded with vegetarian options.

Unlike other UK countries, schools in Northern Ireland are required to display food hygiene ratings, a score that shows how well the food is handled, prepared and stored, and how clean the foodservice facilities are.

Note that those ratings do not address the quality or taste of the food, nor does it represent aspects of food presentation or the chef's skill in food preparation.

Talk with your school if you have special dietary needs.
Your school may surprise you with their ability to meet special dietary needs Photo credit: verchmarco on Visualhunt

Special Dietary Needs

From the religious to the medically necessary to their being a matter of personal preference, student bodies present with a variety of special dietary needs. For instance, the lactose intolerant cannot eat anything dairy - no cheese or yoghurt; even reduced-lactose milk may harm them.

Besides medically necessary food restrictions, there are kosher and halal dietary laws, Catholic laws and other significant religious events that impact food and eating in school.

Beyond the laws addressing allergens, UK schools do their best to accommodate special dietary needs... but such needs make for a very long list. It would be impossible for an industrial kitchen serving a varied population to follow everyone's dietary laws, needs and preferences.

If you/your student has special dietary needs, it's best to discuss them with school administrators. If anything can be done to meet that need, rest assured that no effort will be spared.

If there's no way to guarantee that your specific needs can be met, it might be best to pack your lunch and snacks.

Paying for School Lunches

In England, every child in reception to Year 2 in state-funded schools is entitled to a free school lunch.

Moving past Year 2, schools must provide school meals at no cost if the pupil is deemed eligible according to the guidelines. However, this is not an automatic process; a request for free meals must be made, either by the student or their caregiver.

If you're starting secondary school this year and received free school meals in primary school, you should check to see if your eligibility carries over or if you must resubmit your request.

The average cost of school meals is about the same across the UK; a bit above £2 per meal.

Some schools may provide free snacks along with their milk programme; Scotland goes so far as to make fruit available for free whenever possible. Other schools prefer to partner with parents by asking that they prepare their child's mid-morning snacks.

Note that, while you have a bit of latitude in which snacks you send to school, they must nevertheless conform with the same nutritional guidelines that shape the 'food in school' programme.

Whether or not your lunchbox includes a Totoro, this is what a healthy lunch should look like
This bento box is a sterling example of what a healthy lunch should look like, with or without a Totoro. Photo credit: sherimiya ♥ on Visualhunt.com

Packing Your Lunch

Paying for school lunches seems like the easy choice: hand over a tenner a week (or a bit more) and you're done with it, save for (maybe) snacks.

For families living in financial hardship but that don't quite meet the criteria for free meals, that would pose an additional budgetary burden - especially if they have more than one child in school. For these families, packing lunches makes better sense.

Special dietary needs is another good reason for packing a lunch.

If you/your child has wide-ranging food allergies, the risk of cross-contamination is too great, even if the menu foods they select don't themselves contain allergens.

Religious dietary laws are another good reason for making lunch and snacks at home. You can't be convinced that the school's serving utensils were cleaned according to laws or that the dairy utensils didn't inadvertently come in contact with those meant for meat.

Beware that your students' packed lunches must follow the same guidelines as the school's lunches do. They may not contain sugary drinks or sweets, chocolates or crisps.

They should include fresh fruit and veg; try to avoid commercially available fruit cups whose heavy syrup is loaded with sugar.

If you'd like to include biscuits for dessert, make sure they are more on the side of digestive biscuits, not in the vein of Tim Tams or (chocolate) Hobnobs.

Unless your school has some ability to heat brought-from-home meals, you'll likely be limited to having sandwiches for lunch, That is unless you're fine with eating cold meals.

Make sure your sandwich bread is rich in grains, not ultra-processed, toast-type bread. Avoiding 'processed' is key; besides bread, stay away from processed meats and cheeses.

Granted, (likely) nobody is going to examine the food in your lunchbox but that's not the point. The idea behind school nutrition programmes is to foster healthy eating habits for life, not giving you onerous dietary restrictions to try and skirt.

And, as school is where learning for life happens, shouldn't we all do our best to master these healthy eating lessons?

Now, find out about buying a suitable lunchbox and other back-to-school necessities...

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Sophia

A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.