New research from nutrition experts at the University of Sheffield has revealed that sandwiches, pizza and puddings are the most popular dishes with pupils.

The pioneering study, published in Public Health Nutrition, discovered that despite secondary schools offering a number of freshly prepared hot meal options pupils are disregarding these in favour of foods such as sandwiches and pizza.

However the research, which involved 2,660 pupils from two large Yorkshire secondary schools, also found that children entitled to Free School Meals (FSM) were more likely to pick nutritionally valuable freshly prepared dishes of the day.

The FSM programme, which provides a free school meal for children from low-income families, can make an important contribution to the diet of poorer children, especially where there may be little guarantee of nutritious food at home.

Obesity in childhood is fast becoming a global epidemic and within the UK is at unprecedented levels with 28 per cent of girls and 31 per cent of boys aged between two-15 years being classified as obese or overweight.

Nutrition and obesity are public health priorities due to their links with chronic and life-threatening diseases as well as huge associated costs for the NHS.

School meals can substantially affect a pupil’s diet and overall health and wellbeing. There are more than eight million school children in England and more than three million eat a school meal every day, contributing to 590 million school lunches consumed every year.

Lead author Hannah Ensaff, from the University’s Department of Oncology, said: “Eating behaviour is learnt early on and food preferences established in childhood and adolescence tend to persist into adult life, with related consequences for long-term health.

“Healthy eating habits are crucial to reducing children’s risk of health problems, both long and short-term. The school food environment is an obvious public health intervention, particularly as children today seem to rely more on school food than decades ago.”

Over recent years food-based and nutrient-based standards have improved the provision of school food, most notably through the prohibition and restriction of sources of high fat and sugar such as confectionary, crisps and carbonated soft drinks.

These findings however show a large discrepancy between foods comprising the theoretical menu cycle and the actual grab-and-go choices made by pupils, which highlight the need to consider children’s food choice behaviour, as well as take the opportunity to improve the nutrient density of these popular food items.

Dr Margo Barker, Senior Lecturer in Nutritional Epidemiology, said: “The patterns of food choice of students receiving free school meals with those that pay for them are of particular interest. Students receiving free school meals made nutritionally superior choices in the school canteen, although surveys show that their overall diet is lacking.

“This anomaly seems to be evidence for those calling for policy to extend free school meals beyond those families of lowest income.”

Meeting school food standards – students’ food choice and free school meals
Hannah Ensaff, Jean Russell and Margo E Barker

This paper is freely available online for two weeks


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