PrimarySecondaryHealth & Wellbeing

Are Lunchtime Supervisors the Key to Changing the Healthy Eating Culture in Schools?

Lunchtime supervisors and catering staff are the children’s authority on what’s healthy, how much they should eat and what is socially acceptable at lunchtime, says Jo Stimpson…

Jo Stimpson
by Jo Stimpson
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We’re told that we must create a calm and relaxed eating environment for children at lunchtime. We should also teach them social dining skills and develop a culture of healthy eating within school. All this needs to take place in the 50 minutes available in the middle of the day when everyone, including staff, have their lunch. A challenge? Most certainly.

Having visited several schools at lunchtime, I find the same issues arising.

These include too little time set aside for children to sit down and eat, a lack of authority figures in the dining hall and unmotivated lunchtime supervisors that offer children different meals and portion sizes according to the child and not school food standards or curriculum-taught nutrition.

The presence of teachers at lunchtime has a significant impact. Respect for lunchtime staff can be low and so children often push the boundaries.

Having a regular rota to cover the lunchtime period provides a healthy role model for children, as well as reducing the amount of negative comments made between children about food.

I’ve frequently heard children make fun of others that are choosing healthy foods, especially in lunchboxes, and this can have a significant impact on the decisions made.

In a number of schools I’ve visited, especially small rural ones, I’ve overheard conversations between lunch staff such as, “Poppy doesn’t like vegetables so don’t put any on her plate”; “Ben has a big appetite, he will need an extra portion of potatoes”; “Jack hasn’t eaten any of his dinner – he’ll only eat pudding and we can’t let him go hungry.”

Lunchtime supervisors and catering staff are the gatekeepers to children’s thoughts and eating habits. They are the children’s authority on what’s healthy, how much they should eat and what is socially acceptable at lunchtime.

These are staff that may or may not have any nutritional knowledge and must serve a long queue of children in record time. What can we expect them to realistically do to support pupils?

Many children with two working parents are at school from 7.30am until 6pm at night. They have all three meals there, so teachers, lunchtime staff and wrap-around care supervisors are their greatest influencers.

This may sound daunting and something else to add to the long list of things that need consideration, but the positive impact this can have on a child’s learning surely outweighs the strategic effort required to change the eating culture in a school.

Research has shown that eating a healthy lunch increases concentration and improves behaviour in afternoon lessons. This also suggests that healthy eating can have a direct and positive impact on learning and academic achievement.

A recent collaborative survey carried out by the Jamie Oliver Foundation, British Nutrition Foundation and the Food Teachers Centre revealed that only 50% of schools have a school food policy.

It also highlighted that a positive school food ethos was reflected more widely in schools that had a development plan that included healthy eating.

A school food policy demonstrates a commitment to healthy eating by setting out guidance on what foods are acceptable to consume within school, including breakfast clubs, hot dinners and lunchboxes, and how food education is taught.

It should work towards meeting and exceeding expectations laid out in the school food plan. See an example of a school food policy at whatworkswell.schoolfoodplan.com.

We all know that children need consistent messaging in school, but healthy eating is an area that can be informed by several stakeholders. This includes your catering provider, gardening and cooking club organisers, the school nurse and the food education and PSHE curriculum taught within school.

Are the people involved in these initiatives providing conflicting messages when it comes to nutrition? It is important that the nominated lead in your school knows what is being taught by these various groups.

Lunchtime supervisors on their own cannot change the food culture of a school, but they are a key part in reinforcing or undermining other healthy eating messaging at a time when decisions about food are being made.

Creating a regular group that includes a representative from the catering team as well as other school stakeholders is essential to leading the change.

By involving children, teachers, parents and the catering team you will find that the dining hall may become less of a battleground and more of an enjoyable place to eat at lunchtime.

Jo Stimpson is a nutritionist at Premier Education Group. Find out more at premier-education.com and on Twitter at @premieractivate. Browse resource ideas for Healthy Eating Week.

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