Well-functioning framework for school meals equals healthier children

The availability of healthy and appetizing food is a prerequisite for ensuring that children eat healthy food at school; but the social environment also plays an important role. A recent report from Aarhus University investigates what it takes to introduce healthier food habits to school classes.

2017.10.26 | Lotte Rystedt

School meals may improve social relations. Photo: Colourbox

Proper nourishment is important – also for children, who spend a significant part of their time in school. In a recent report from Aarhus University, researchers have examined the necessary framework and basis in order for primary school children to start eating healthy foods.

-          Healthy and hearty food has a positive impact on children’s ability to concentrate and learn, and well-functioning meal environments seem to strengthen the students’ performances, says Postdoc Mikkel Stovgaard, DPU – Danish School of Education, Aarhus University. He is one of the authors of the report ”Rammer for mad og måltider i skolen” (Framework for food and meal schemes in schools), prepared by researchers from DPU – Danish School of Education and the Department of Food Science at Aarhus University.

The report is a systematic research survey commissioned by the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration as part of the agreement between Aarhus University and the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark on the provision of research-based policy support.

It starts with healthy food

One of the most effective initiatives to promote children’s health is quite simply to offer the children healthier foods in schools – and of a high gastronomic quality. However, there is room for improvement as typical Danish school meals are not sufficiently rich in energy, and contain too little fruit, vegetables and wholegrain. In addition to ensuring basic good and healthy food, school meals may further influence the students’ preferences for healthier foods.

Social environment and meals

The social aspect of eating together is of significant importance, and school meals are able to increase social relations in the appropriate environment.

-         The students experience an increased satisfaction and enjoyment by eating together in smaller and more informal groups – more like family or a group of friends – rather than eating in a huge canteen. This may also increase social relations across classes, if older students are responsible for the younger children’s meals or vice versa, says Mikkel Stovgaard.

The influence of other students has a major impact on the children’s attitudes and enjoyment of eating healthy food. Teachers may act as role models for the youngest children, whereas older students consider their friends as role models.

Include the students  

The social aspect of eating together is strengthened when the students contribute to establish the framework.

-         The students should be involved in all phases when creating a new school meal framework; ranging from the idea phase (what do we want?) to examining (what and how do we eat at our school?), design (how do we want to eat?) and change phase (what to do and who does it?), says Mikkel Stovgaard.

Time is an essential factor when promoting healthy eating habits. More time for eating may have a positive impact on children’s consumption of fruits and vegetables; and generally, children will eat more if they have sufficient time for eating. Typically, students will eat more fruits and vegetables if it is easily accessible, delicious and cut into bite-size portions.

If meal schemes include breakfast, this can increase student performances, concentration and consumption of fruits and vegetables, and – according to international research – it will help reduce absence. Finally, it has been demonstrated that healthy snacks have a positive effect as they reduce the students’ hunger, which may result in concentration difficulties. 

-          Generally, the school meal framework may simply consist of healthy, tasty and delicious food eaten in smaller groups, with a reduced noise level and with sufficient time to eat, says Mikkel Stovgaard.

The report ”Rammer for mad og måltider i skolen” (in Danish) is available here


Further information

 

Postdoc Mikkel Stovgaard

DPU - Danish School of Education

E-mail: stovgaard@edu.au.dk

Tel.: 87 15 17 27

 

 

Food, DCA, Food, Research