Today, I watched my son cross the road by himself as he set off on his new adventure into secondary school.  He is my second child so I have been here before with my first born, however, he is also my last child so it was an emotional moment for me seeing the last of my children finally moving onto the next stage of their life.

As the anxious Mums all met for coffee for morale support we all discussed our children’s anxieties and particularly our own. From whether the children would settle quickly, find a good peer group to whether they would get lost between classes or make the right nutritional choices at lunchtime now they have the freedom to do so. We dwelled on the latter as this was the first time in their lives that they would not be guided at lunchtime.  As new Mums we did not know exactly what the food choices were at lunchtime and most of us had advised our children “don’t just have chips for lunch”.

I recognise thafoodfacest it is important to let our children have their independence to make the right choices going forward and there will inevitably be mistakes made. It is the learning from the mistakes that is fundamental in their progress. As a Nutritional Therapist, I encourage healthy eating at home so I know that my children are equipped to understand the difference between foods that will help you re-energise and help your concentration to foods that do not. My concern is the whether the message learnt at home is continued at secondary school.

From experience, my eldest went through a stage of swapping the activity of eating at lunchtime for the numerous clubs that were available to attend instead. I discovered this after noticing her coming home ravenous each day and this sparked a conversation with her as to why. She explained to me that the lunch queue took too long to be served in the first half hour of lunch and that it was easier to skip lunch altogether and socialise with her friends (via mobile phone communication I might add) before attending a club in the second half of the lunch hour. I was shocked that the school were not aware of this happening.

After all the hard work that the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation has done to change school menus over the years to the programs in place with the School Food Plan. It all seems irrelevant if the school environment was not designed to encourage their pupils to make time for eating during the lunch hour. Why are there so many lunchtime clubs available during this time of supposed rest?

The Head Teacher told me that the students were given lunchtime passes to skip the queues (which according to my daughter did not work because there were still many students at the same time trying to be at the front of the queue for the same reason). Clubs were only for half an hour which purposely left the other half hour for eating (although as we can see this was not happening). She also mentioned that they were advocates of several healthy eating initiatives and if I knew of any others she would be happy to hear about them. The answers did not entirely deal with the problem at hand which was that the children were not re-fuelling effectively due to the distractions the school were making available to them. Why not offer clubs after school?

Taking time out for eating at lunchtime is so important and not just for children but everyone…………….so let me explain why:

  • Give children time to enjoy their food – this will establish positive lifelong attitudes towards eating. Getting children involved in a regular habit of eating during the lunch hour can develop their interest in food and healthy eating.
  • Energy levels – they will need to re-fuel at lunch time to see them through until the end of school bell. In order to create healthy blood sugar balance and give us the energy to function we need to re-fuel with healthy nutritious food regularly. Long gaps in eating can result in weakness, dizziness, fatigue and lack of concentration. This will impact on their listening skills, learning and achievements going forward.
  • Effective digestion of nutrients – by taking rest, sitting down, seeing, smelling and taking time to eat your food is all part of the digestive process. If you do not eat mindfully and are distracted or rushed, the signals from the brain are missed by the salivary glands which are responsible for secreting the enzymes needed to break down the food effectively. Distracted by eating in front of a computer, mobile phone or tv or rushed eating can result in bloating and abdominal discomfort (due to the fermenting of large food molecules which have not been broken down effectively thereby sitting in the intestine creating gas)
  • Social skills – by banning mobile phones in schools throughout the day this can prevent children from having distractions at lunchtimes that inhibit healthy socialising. Lunchtimes should be spent getting to know their peers and creating network groups of friends instead of creating shy children hiding behind their phones too afraid to make eye contact or speak. Children do not need mobile phones until the school day is finished as the school office is a point of contact for both parents and children.

So what can we do as parents to guide our children to healthy eating at school:

  1. Educate yourselves find out what the school canteen offer on their menus – ask the school office for a copy of the school menu. This is also usually available via the county council in your area.
  2. Talk to your children about making healthy choices in order to help them function thoroughout the school day – this includes hydration and drinking plenty of water.
  3. If clubs at lunch time are causing your child to rush their lunch – suggest that they take a packed lunch that day. This way they can re-fuel as soon as their lunch hour starts instead of spending time queuing.
  4. Some schools offer a way of watching what choices your child makes at lunch through itemising food on their smart cards – keep an eye if your school has this facility.
  5. Finally, if the menu options do not work for your child (perhaps they are lactose intolerant, coeliac) then encourage them to make their own packed lunch every day to take to school, this will also offer independence for them.

Finally, try not to show your stress to your child if you are worrying about their eating habits. Just keep the lines of communication open as best you can and encourage healthy eating at home as much as possible. Good luck with the new school term.

By the way, my son choose a hot meal in meatballs at lunchtime on his first day and there was not a chip in sight. So proud of him standing on his own two feet.