Healthy Eating is Fuel for Education

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School meals have never been the subject of so much debate, but what changes have actually been made and are children and young people genuinely eating more healthily?

Schools in Derby are among the 99% of schools nationwide participating in Healthy Schools, a joint Department of Health (DH) and Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) initiative, which is creating new ways to help children make healthier food choices. Today it’s fairly widely accepted that a child who has a well balanced diet will also be more alert, less tired or irritable, better engaged and more ready to learn, and the Healthy Schools framework is helping Derby, a Beacon Council for Healthy Schools, to promote school meals as fuel for education.

Derby City Council School Catering Service has developed a new way for primary school students to choose their meals in advance, by allowing students to decide which lunch they would like during registration, then preparing the right number of each dish. Children and young people can choose between a vegetarian, meat or fish dish with different recipes each day, supported by photographs and choice sheets so teachers can promote constructive discussions about new and healthy foods. 

Kathryn Cordwell, Healthy Schools Consultant on Healthy Eating, explains, “Depending on which meal they choose, students are given a coloured band - red for meat, green for vegetarian and blue for fish - which makes it an inclusive and attractive choice as the children and young people love wearing them. All in all, it’s a scheme which has made a significant impact in school kitchens, budgets and in the classroom.  And because exactly the right number of meals are cooked and prepared, we’ve found that schools which have tried the new system have two thirds less wasted food.

“In one school, the number of children eating school dinners has risen to 85%. So, we know they’re benefiting from food that helps them to concentrate in the classroom, improving their behaviour and their motivation to perform well.

“By changing the way children think about choosing healthy food and making it into an attractive option, we’ve found that children’s eating habits have changed. And, since the scheme began, school cooks tell us that they have seen more clean plates and less waste!”  

Nationally, DCSF has invested over £150million to help promote healthier long-term eating habits, with the aim of providing hands-on cooking lessons for every 11 to 14 year old from 2011. This will enable them to make cheap, healthy dishes from simple, fresh ingredients, as well as promoting greater understanding about where food comes from.  In Derby, teachers have been trained with the professional skills to inspire students about cooking, and local primary schools will be paired with a secondary school in their area.

“An experienced specialist Food Technology teacher can train primary schools on how to teach children basic recipes which are more inspiring than the usual ham sandwich!” adds Kathryn Cordwell. “The training sessions are a productive way of sharing new ideas and equipping primary school teachers with practical ideas to use in the classroom. These relationships have raised the profile and significance of healthy eating within primary schools, who have also benefited from a locally developed resource pack called 'Tasting a Rainbow' to help teaching staff inform children about eating well. 

Involving the whole school community has been another vital aspect of Derby’s success in shaping healthier eating habits. For instance, five local secondary schools have set up School Nutrition Action Groups (SNAGs) which are taking ownership of different projects within schools and getting the support of parents and carers, as well as the children and young people themselves.

An initial questionnaire from a special school in Derby, St Martins, showed that students in the school’s SNAG group had limited knowledge about healthy eating, especially the role of fruit in healthy eating. Focusing on this issue, students from Years 7, 8 and 9 decided as a group to spend some of their funding on ingredients, blenders and bowls, in order to make fruit smoothies which they could show at different school events. At each group meeting, they created different recipes to introduce fruit into their everyday diets, such as kiwi on toast, fruit bruschetta and carrot and banana cake. 

The students then collated these recipes into a healthy eating leaflet for parents, to prompt discussion and encourage their families to try out some of the recipes. They also organised a Smoothie Breakfast Event for all students and held a display stall at a recent Parents’ Evening to show how easily they could be made at home. The recipe cards are now being used in the curriculum and the healthy eating leaflet has prompted more students to get involved.  

A strong partnership approach in Derby which has seen schools in Derby sharing best practice and promoting city-wide initiatives, has been an important factor in developing healthy behaviours, and positively influencing both performance and behaviour within the classroom, as well as the longer-term health prognosis of these students.

For more information about Healthy Schools visit: www.

Let’s Get Cooking – Case Study

Seventeen schools in Derby City are actively organising cookery clubs  to encourage children and their families to cook healthy and appealing meals together as part of their ongoing Healthy Schools work and with funding from the School Food Trust’s  ‘Let’s Get Cooking’ initiative.

Ashcroft Primary School in Derby went a step further by starting an after-school cookery and gardening club as part of their ongoing Healthy Schools work to enable children to experience growing their own vegetables and learn to cook with them, as well as to encourage physical activity and peer-peer interaction.

The school takes children from mixed backgrounds within inner-city estates with a range of abilities, including special needs.

  • Ashcroft Primary now has 8 raised beds and has been growing courgettes, sweetcorn, peas, onions, strawberries, lettuce, beetroot, runner beans and sunflowers and the weekly after-school club is led by two parent volunteers.
  • Children have been learning how to cook simple stir-fries, pizzas and vegetable kebabs and the fresh food proved especially popular at a recent Community Fun Day where fruit and vegetables sold out half way through the day!
  • Jane Morbey, teaching assistant leading the project says, “The children love gardening and cooking the produce.  It’s a brilliant way of promoting healthy choices because the children have seen the fruit and vegetables grow so they are more inquisitive and curious to find out what they taste like.” 
  • “Many of the children who said they didn’t like a type of food changed their minds after cooking it themselves because they had learnt where it came from and how to prepare it.  In fact many of them were proud of their achievements and we heard them enthusiastically telling their parents what they had cooked.”
  • Jane Morbey continues, “We’ve been promoting healthy eating for over two years, but many parents think that having 5-a- day means five fresh pieces of fruit or vegetables – and that they can’t afford it.  We’ve been working hard to show parents that tinned, frozen, juiced and dried, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables, all count towards a healthy lifestyle and that it doesn’t need to be expensive.  It’s not about good and bad foods, it’s about helping children to know what they are eating and the effect it will have on their health, attitude learning and behaviour.”
  • Head teacher, Penny Brown, said, “It’s early days to see the full impact of the gardening and cookery clubs, but every week it’s clear to see the children love being active outside, taking responsibility for their plants and exploring new ways of creating appetising dishes afterwards in the cookery club.” 
  • Penny Brown continues, “Interacting with their peers and other parents improves children’s social and communication skills - and builds a sense of personal pride in their achievements as they harvest the vegetables they’ve grown and present the dishes they’ve created.” 
  • “Encouraging children to cook has also increased the number of parents getting involved in using new recipes and talking with their children about what they are eating – which is part of our aim as a school to involve parents in every aspect of their child’s learning and use their support to maximise their children’s education.”