Nutrition, physical activity and lifestyle during childhood and adolescence have a huge impact on a child’s well being, growth and development, learning ability and risk of disease later in life.
Over the last few weeks I have spent time at my daughter’s school talking to each class about nutrition and healthy eating. My time in the classroom has reinforced how important education and the school food environment is to help develop healthy food habits and behaviours early on.
Individual school policies as well as national government guidelines show that the school environment has a significant influence on food habits and behaviour.
For example my daughter’s school has a strict policy around prohibiting junk food and packaged food, and this is reflected in the school lunch boxes as most children bring fresh, whole foods with minimum packaged foods. It also helps to minimize peer pressure to have packaged or junk foods.
National guidelines like those of France can also have a significant impact. School lunch programs are a very serious aspect of school in France and with the obesity rate for children half that of Australia’s it suggests that education and environment plays a role. According to Professor Karen Le Billon, author of “French Kids Eat Everything”, the French government has decided that teaching healthy eating routines to children is a priority, and they teach children about healthy food in the classroom AND the lunchroom. The French government guidelines reflect the country’s attitude to food (enjoyment of food and part of social fabric), and focus on variety and quality of food. Attention is placed on the dining environment, the time to eat (at least 45 minutes) and pleasure of eating as well as learning about food and taste. Foods served in the French school environment today seem to have remained true to the French ethos of quality food and enjoyment with vending machines banned in all schools.
France is not the only country to place emphasis on taking time to eat as well as eating together with family and friends, Brazil does as well, and there are many others. A recent study by the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health supports this cultural practice when it found that children with less than 20 minutes to eat school lunch consume significantly less of their main food, milk and vegetables than those who aren’t rushed.
So while our guidelines and education in the classroom in Australia must focus on nutrition, healthy eating and healthy lifestyle practices I think we could learn from other cultures and government guidelines to think about the lunch environment at our schools, including the length of the lunch period, giving children enough time to eat but also to play and be active.