It seems that parents now have two battles to contend with when it comes to our children’s school dinners or packed lunch – health and sustainability.
Though parents and schools could be forgiven for having other things on their minds over the last 18 months, it is clear that reducing the environmental impact of school dinners is as important as the food that is in them.
In what is a daunting subject, the gathering of information on both healthy lunch options and environmentally friendly ones can be an unenviable task. So, what options do parents and schools have and is it really possible to cater to both of these crucial needs?
Meat free days
One way in which parents and schools can look to focus on health and the environment in one fell swoop is by considering a meat-free day such as Meatless Mondays.
There is evidence to suggest that a shift towards a plant-based diet can help reduce disease whilst also having a positive impact on the environment. Research suggests that those who have a meat-free diet consume fewer calories from fat and more from fibre, vitamin C and potassium, resulting in a more balanced diet.
The BBC Good Food site www. bbcgoodfood.com provides an abundance of easy-to-prepare (both for parents and schools) veggie lunch ideas such as falafel wraps, super salads with cheddar cheese, omelettes in a bun and even the classic school staple of pizza!
It would seem then that even one day of going meat free is a healthy option for children which deals with today but what about tomorrow and the world our kids will be living in? Well, it turns out that a reduction in meat consumption helps on that front as well.
Numerous studies tell us that the global level of meat consumption has a negative impact on the environment, increasing green house emissions whilst depleting our water, land and energy. Who knew that by choosing hummus over ham for just one day, you’d be changing the world?
Another quick and easy win for parents is to cut out processed food when it comes to packed lunches as this solves two problems in one. As we know, most fruit and vegetables come with no or minimal packaging whereas processed, less healthy options can come with multiple layers of plastic.
According to Eco to Go www.ecotogofoodpacks.co.uk, who are experts in providing sustainable packaging for takeaway foods: “Food packaging is directly responsible for a broad range of environmental issues, including overcrowded landfills, greenhouse gas emissions, and litter-pollution (both on land and in the ocean).”
And on the health front? A study published in Nutrition Journal found that the large number of calories in processed food may lead to a number of health problems including reduced control of infection and increased risk of illness and disease.
The study’s author, Dr Ian Myles, says that the best way to improve our immune systems, and that of our children, is to simply improve our diet.
He said: “Things that most people know—but do not feel confident in their ability to accomplish right now: eliminate processed sugars, eliminating homogenised fats.”
Homogenised fats basically means unnatural fats that can be found in processed food like cakes, mayonnaise or peanut butter whereas as natural fats are encouraged – things like avocado, nuts or fish, all of which can be easily added to a lunch box.
Of course parents’ time is precious and scarce, none more so today, and the idea of shopping around for these healthy, sustainable options every week can be daunting but there are other ways to do your bit for the environment that doesn’t require ticking a weekly checklist of dos and don’ts.
It has never been easier to get your hands on sensible, viable packaging and though the price of some options can be initially off putting, in the long run they will most likely be an easier burden on your weekly shopping bill.
Think about the amount of plastic bottles or sandwich zip-bags we throw away every day and of course replace. There are plenty of options out there that can put a stop to this. One of which is provided by the Beeswax Wrap Co. www.beeswaxwraps.co.uk whose mission is to cut down on plastic packaging with beeswax wraps.
These are made from sustainably sourced materials in the UK and are usable for up to a year!
Another easy victory is reusable plastic water bottles which not only encourage children to stay hydrated but also reduce our carbon footprint. Ranging from £6 to anything up to £25, there are plenty of child-friendly (and leak-free!) options available on the high street or online.
A popular choice is the coolly named Contigo Gizmo Flip bottle www.mycontigo.com/en/kids . Seen as virtually unbreakable, this bottle won’t leak and is super easy to clean. One more bonus in these times; hygiene. Children don’t even need to touch the mouthpiece when drinking.
School dinners and what schools can do
When it comes to packed lunches the power is very much in the parents’ or guardians’ hands but what about the role of the school and the meals they provide?
A popular project in schools is the creation of a garden or fruit and vegetable patch. Here, children can be involved and engaged in the entire food cycle at a key age.
This improvement of food quality as well as an increase in knowledge has been shown to improve sustainability, with less food waste and often an increase in locally sourced organic food products.
Research suggests that early and repeated exposure to this food cycle in children is a key mechanism in learning to like and eat a wider diversity of vegetables.
Cutting down on waste
Primary and secondary schools in the UK contribute a staggering 80,000 tonnes of food waste in an academic year. Clearly just a small step in the right direction by all schools would cut this number significantly. But how?
One easy step is food waste bins. Though a lot of schools may already have these, a more targeted approach or indeed engagement with students and pupils could see food waste figures fall.
Another approach is in fact linked to the school garden approach or, as some have labelled it, the ‘IKEA effect’. Studies have shown that when products including food are produced by the person themselves, there is a much higher appreciation for it. The result? More food eaten and less food wasted.
Cutting down on plastic
You don’t need to be an expert on the climate crisis to know the effect single-use plastic has and although there have been huge individual efforts to cut down in recent years it would seem there are still more steps to be taken.
The Batt CE Primary School in Oxfordshire found a very simple solution in their efforts to do their bit by cutting down on plastic cutlery.
Deputy headteacher Mark Peacey said: “It started when the children noticed that plastic spoons were provided with the yoghurt pudding option on a Friday and, quite rightly, they felt that this was not a good idea.” The school decided to introduce metal spoons instead.
To illustrate the knock-on-effect in communities of such actions, nearby St Swithun’s followed The Batt’s lead. As well as studying a school-wide topic on sustainability they decided to introduce costeffective, eco-friendly bin-liners.
Engagement and education
Of course, all schools must abide by and follow the standards of the School Food Plan, set out in 2015, but schools may feel limited as to what they are able to provide whether it be down to lack of facilities, funds or even knowledge.
One organisation that seeks to help schools and nurseries in this field is the Soil Association www.soilassociation.org . In their Food for Life programme, they focus on healthy, sustainable food whilst educating on where our food comes from – farm to fork.
In engaging staff, as well as pupils, Food for Life puts the knowledge, and therefore power, into the hands of those who know what’s best for their school.
Though modern parenting and schooling can be tricky at the best of times, it’s clear that providing a healthy and sustainable option at lunch doesn’t need to be the minefield it can initially appear to be. The journey to a better, more eco-friendly meal time for children in school can be educational, fun and, let’s be honest, most important of all, tasty!