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In recent years, the spotlight has increasingly been placed on nutrition as a vital part of a child’s development. Schools have picked up on this research, and more and more are committed to providing healthy options for their students. 

To find out exactly why nutrition is so important in schools, we spoke to Julia Hayes, a nutritionist at catering company Thomas Franks. Here, she explains how healthy food contributes to the physical and mental wellbeing of children and how using fresh, local produce helps not only a school’s community, but the environment too.

Tell me about Thomas Franks

“Thomas Franks is a specialist caterer that believes in the power of feeding the mind and making meal times special. 

“Using the best ingredients, sourced from local, responsible suppliers, our culinary teams design delicious and healthy menus. Freshly produced and beautifully presented within an agreed budget structure, our meals delight pupils and parents.”

What’s your role?

“As the company Nutritionist, I have a very varied role. I’m responsible for training and developing our teams regarding our nutrition standards and catering for special diets. I also deliver nutrition workshops, assemblies and talks to parents on different aspects of healthy eating.” 

What are the benefits of sourcing local foods and using local suppliers?

“Using them supports the local suppliers and farms close to our schools, further strengthening the school’s connection within the community.

“Using smaller family-owned local suppliers allows our chefs the flexibility to take advantage of seasonal, local and speciality produce. Because they get to speak with the suppliers, they build strong working relationships and these suppliers are always very supportive of our events and tutorials on food at schools.

“The suppliers will come and showcase their products for tasters, attend suppliers’ fairs, teach pupils how to use their products in recipes or even how to make sausages!

“From an environmental impact viewpoint, fewer miles are travelled when deliveries are made by local suppliers thus minimising carbon emissions.”

How does a having balanced diet help students excel at school?

“Encouraging pupils to understand the benefits of eating a wide variety of foods from the four main food groups is so important for supporting both academic and sports performance.

“Starting the day with a healthy breakfast, which combines slow-release carbohydrates for sustained energy, some quality protein to provide satiety, as well as at least one portion of fruit and vegetables and a drink for hydration, is the best way to get the day off to a good start.  

“At lunch, I like to recommend that pupils make the most of all the delicious options available, whether it’s a homemade soup accompanied by freshly baked bread, the carefully prepared ‘Dish of the Day’ accompanied by seasonal vegetables or the fabulous selection of salad bar choices, there are so many ways to create a delicious and nutritious meal to support their studies.”

What constitutes a well-balanced diet?

“Variety is the key to a well-balanced diet. Eating as many different types of food as possible, in the right proportions, will ensure the body is receiving the full range of nutrients for optimal health.

“Eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, aiming for at least five portions a day, and replacing refined carbohydrates with three to four portions of high-fibre alternatives is a good place to start. Try to have two to three portions of high-quality protein a day and include two portions of fish (one of which should be oily fish) a week.

“Low-fat dairy foods also provide protein, as well as calcium, and should be eaten two to three times a day. Small amounts of unsaturated oils and spreads, such as olive and rapeseed oil, should be used to replace butter for cooking. Finally, whilst no food is banned, try to keep the processed foods that are high in fat and sugar to a minimum and opt for a healthier choice instead.”

Have you seen a shift towards healthier food choices in schools? Are students demanding healthier choices?

“Most definitely. Students are often extremely health conscious, especially in senior schools and in schools that are very sports-focussed. Pupils want to see more of the tasty ‘Street Food’ style options, such as spicy noodle pots, fajita kebabs and fish tacos – these meals are popular on the high street and can be extremely healthy.” 

How can we encourage young people to make healthier food choices?

“Messages about how an unhealthy diet can lead to heart disease or cancer don’t usually resonate with young people. Instead, I prefer to focus on the more immediate effects that eating well can have on mood, energy levels, sports performance and sleep patterns.

“Dining room promotions, using posters, tasting tables and demonstrations, of the foods that provide these benefits are an effective way of encouraging healthier food choices.”

Do pupils’ nutritional needs change as they progress through school?

“Pupils at primary level need a nutrient dense diet, providing adequate energy, protein and a host of important vitamins and minerals, to support their growth and development.

“However, as pupils make the transition to senior school, the demands of puberty, together with an insatiable appetite, highlight the importance of nutritious food to support this stage of rapid growth.

“Vegetarian teenagers can be vulnerable to nutrient deficiencies, especially iron, and so school menus need to provide for their specific needs.” 

Do you see a link between nutrition, wellbeing and mental health?

“There is so much scientific research currently taking place about the role nutrition plays in our mental health. The omega-3 fats, found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, have been shown to support brain function and development.

“Emerging research is also linking the health of our gut bacteria with our mental health. Feeding the gut microbes with foods containing live bacteria (probiotics), such as live yoghurt, kefir and cottage cheese, as well as prebiotic foods that provide food for the probiotic bacteria, such as onions, garlic and oats, may well prove to be beneficial in preventing mental illness in the future.” 

What other changes have you seen when it comes to meal planning in schools over the last 10 years or so? E.g. more vegan requirements?

“School meals have undoubtedly become healthier in recent years. As well as the demand for more vegan options, we have seen improvements to the nutritional quality of vegetarian meals and requests from flexitarians to make vegetarian meals available for all.

“The biggest change, however, has to be the reduction in the amount of sugar on the menu. Looking ahead, I think we will see an increasing demand for sustainably sourced food, more plant-based alternatives to meat and a reduction in food miles in favour of local and seasonal produce.”

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