School canteens are important places for children to eat and for their health. First, they provide at least one of the essential meals of the day during the school year. Second, because of their educational relevance, since they are part of the school center and will have an important influence when establishing the future eating habits of schoolchildren.
Food in the school stage
Children’s eating habits begin to be built from an early age, the school stage being key to create the basis of the eating habits of the adult stage.
The most relevant place where good (or bad) eating habits are established is the home. In the school canteen, the child will end up taking about 10% of the total meals at the end of the year (considering 5 meals a day: breakfast, mid-morning, lunch, snack, and dinner).
In any case, the school cafeteria has a remarkable relevance, since it is an important epicenter of socialization and the creation of habits.
Many children discover some foods in the school cafeteria, for better and for worse. The ideal would be to be able to minimize the child’s contact with foods and preparations that are not going to bring him any benefit at present or to establish healthy eating habits in the future.
Guide of school canteens
Each autonomous community has administrative authority over the school canteens in public schools. The basic rules that govern its operation are at the state level (such as Law 17/2011, of July 5, on food safety and nutrition). In them, recommendations are established so that healthy eating habits are encouraged and promoted in school canteens. For this, various guidelines are outlined. One of them is that those responsible for the supervision of the menus are “accredited professional experts in the areas of nutrition and dietetics”, among other provisions.
Structure of the school menu
The Guide to School Canteens of each Autonomous Community establishes a series of guidelines and specifications that should govern the operation of school canteens, as well as the structure and composition of meals:
The midday meal should provide around 30-35% of the daily energy needs according to age groups.
First course: It is recommended that it be made up of rice, pasta, legumes, potatoes or vegetables, raw or cooked.
Second course: The group of protein foods is chosen: meat, fish, and eggs.
Garnish: It can be very diverse and the type of food used will depend on the composition of the first course, although vegetables and salads will generally be prioritized in their different varieties.
Bread: The meal will be accompanied by a portion of bread whose size will depend on the age of the child.
Dessert: Fruit will be the usual dessert. Fruit juices will never completely replace the consumption of whole fresh fruits. Milk and dairy desserts are a good complement in school meals, but in no case will they be presented as a substitute for natural fruit in a dessert.
Water: Water should be the only drink that accompanies meals. It is essential that it is always present in the food and that it is easy for the child to access it.
It is recommended to limit the use of pre-cooked products.
Special situations, such as allergies, intolerances and special situations, such as vegetarianism or veganism, should also be considered in dining rooms.
Nutritional quality of menus in school canteens
Some studies have assessed the nutritional characteristics of the menus offered in school canteens. Of course, there is great variability that will depend, mainly, on who is in charge of offering the service.
In many cases, the efforts to adapt school menus to nutritional recommendations are remarkable. However, as a general rule, some shortcomings or defects should be corrected. In general, there is still a shortage of varied fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs, and oily fish, in the context of an unimaginative cuisine. It is also appreciated the inclusion in the menus of foods and preparations that are not recommended (fried and precooked, dairy desserts with excessive sugar content, etc.).
School canteens, service, or business?
Some estimates indicate that 40% of children eat the “most important meal of the day” in school cafeterias. This is an important business that moves many millions at the state level.
Large catering companies have the main objective of increasing their profits. Unfortunately, this sometimes means that the quality of the food will suffer. When these companies lower costs, both raw material, and personnel, they can present themselves in tenders for the award of the service with the greatest prospects of success. However, schools can choose to manage their dining room, directly ensuring the quality and nutritional suitability of the menus. Small local cooperatives that promote local products and organic food are also an option that should be promoted from all levels.
The ideal school cafeteria
Ideally, the school itself would manage and control its dining room, directly overseeing the structure and planning of the menus, the origin of raw materials and food, and the preparation of dishes. Local cooperatives are also a good option so that the result of the children’s school feeding is optimal.
In cases where the service is outsourced, it is important to review the planning of the menus, the raw materials used, and the preparation of the dishes. Although it is stipulated by law that the planning of the menus will be supervised by dietitians, on many occasions the caterer or the company in charge of supplying the meals of the dining room makes nutritional questions subject to purely economic questions.