The food children consume at school has had a lot of media attention in the last few years, especially since Jamie Oliver in the UK put it in the limelight with his school dinners program. A recent study looking at children’s ‘readiness to learn’ done in Hull in the UK* shows a very clear picture that children who eat better at lunchtime do better in the classroom.

In Australia, over 80% of school children bring their lunch from home and research over the years indicates that the quality of school lunchboxes is very poor.

I spend a lot of time in schools doing food education sessions and I often do a quick straw poll in the classroom. Hands up those who have fruit in their lunchbox today? Who has any vegetables? What do you have for recess snack? What do you have to drink? My findings are nearly always the same, no matter the demographics. Many children bring a piece of fruit but very few have vegetables and nearly all have at least one or several cheap, sugary snacks. If they have a sandwich it is usually made with white bread and often filled with either processed meats or processed spreads. Some children bring water but more bring juice and some soft drinks. Many lunchboxes are filled with processed food and have little fresh food, so the majority of school children are limping through the day on very ordinary fare.

Let’s take a look at school lunchboxes and see how learning can be improved by making some changes

Sandwiches

If the sandwich is made from white sliced bread, brainpower potential immediately drops. Lower in all the essential nutrients, it is also lower in B vitamins – essential for brain development. Choosing good quality wholegrain bread for sandwiches can make a difference to brain food intake. Sandwich fillings such as processed meats and spreads offer nothing for the brain. By filling the sandwich with cheese, salad, tuna, fresh chicken or egg instead, the child has far greater potential for learning. Essential fats found in fish for example are widely known to feed the intellect.

Drinks

Water is the only drink that kids need at school. The correlation between hydration and learning has been shown to be evident many times. Dehydration can add to tiredness, irritability and headaches. An adequate supply of water throughout the day makes learning easier. Fruit juice, even the ones with no added sugar, are high in sugars, dampening appetite and increasing blood sugar levels. Soft drinks are of course not only high in sugar but can also contain caffeine – not ideal to enhance learning.

Snacks
Simple home made snacks are the health makers. Wholegrain muffins, biscuits or slices, home made popcorn, dried fruit and nuts, or yoghurt as a snack are far better for kids than chocolate bars, chips and manufactured snacks. These send blood sugar levels soaring from their sugar content and have kids climbing the walls with their food additive content. Again, not the best for learning.
Fruits and vegetables
A vital component of a healthy lunchbox! A couple of pieces of fruit and a vegetable or two increases the health stakes enormously. They help keep blood sugar levels even and provide essential vitamins and minerals to enhance learning.
What can schools do to encourage healthy lunchboxes?
•    Encouragement and praise – a quick examination of lunch boxes gives a fair idea of what is being consumed and ongoing positive reinforcement of healthier foods can have astonishing results.
•    Education – classroom education sessions about the importance of good food can have a direct impact on school lunchboxes.
•    Parent education – sessions or workshops for parents on the value of good food, offering advice and ideas for healthy school lunchboxes always have encouraging results.
•   Inform and support – healthy lunchbox newsletter tips and articles gives parents ideas and helps create a supportive environment.
•    Student involvement – running recipe competitions and lunchbox ideas campaigns keeps the kids interested and motivated.
•    Set an example – teachers need to remember they are powerful role models to their students, so eat well yourselves.

*The University of Hull, Institute for Learning. Healthy School Meals Evaluation