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Out of the box: Healthy eating is now part of school lunchrooms

Teachers and parents alike are fighting junk food with nutritious options for children.

health and fitness Updated: Oct 02, 2016 10:33 IST
Parents are usually to blame for their child’s junk food addiction, as what children are fed in their formative years determines their food preferences for the rest of their lives.
Parents are usually to blame for their child’s junk food addiction, as what children are fed in their formative years determines their food preferences for the rest of their lives.(Sushil Kumar/HT Photo)

Saad Janhavi Shan is a rare 8-year-old who turns his nose up at burgers and cola. His mother Janhavi Samant occasionally tries to persuade him to have a slice of pizza but he wants none of it.

“Since his pre-school days, his school teachers have taught him to eat healthy and avoid junk food,” says the 39-year-old media executive. “He now has an instinctive dislike of fast food.”

Parents are usually to blame for their child’s junk food addiction, as what children are fed in their formative years determines their food preferences for the rest of their lives.

“From six months to a year, a baby should not be given food with added sugar or salt. Direct sugars are most harmful, so avoid giving colas and sweetened juices to toddlers and adolescents,” says Anita Jatana, chief dietician, New Delhi’s Apollo Hospital.

The credit for Saad’s healthy food choices goes to Shishuvan School in Mumbai’s Matunga Central neighbourhood, where healthy food habits have been made part of the lunchroom plan and packed meals students bring from home.

“Teachers conduct tiffin [lunchbox] checks for new students in their initial weeks so that the idea gets ingrained. After a while, you find no one eating junk or chocolate bars in school,” says Namita Talreja, principal of Shishuvan School. “We also encourage parents to send healthy snacks for the entire class, which encourages cultural exchanges between students.”

Get fresh

The cafeteria at New Delhi’s Sardar Patel Vidyalaya (SPV) serves only fresh food. “We don’t stock food prepared or packaged elsewhere in the canteen; it is cooked here every morning,” says Anuradha Joshi, school principal. “The school has a vibrant home science department, which is very creative and comes up with different menu for the kids.”

To inculcate healthy food habits, some schools have gone a step ahead and included vegetable patches within the school premises.

“We have a kitchen garden in school that is a part of children’s activities. For example, yesterday at the “brinjal activity”, children in primary classes plucked brinjals with teachers and the canteen staff used it to make baingan bharta for them,” said Sovanika Pal, principal, Vidya Bharti School, Delhi.

At the school’s 20-minute fruit break every day, students are asked to eat an entire fruit or a salad brought from home. “It’s mandatory for children to participate in fruit-time break, which is a way to ensure fruit becomes a part of their daily diet,” she says.

With more and more children turning overweight, schools are increasingly turning to nutritionists to get students to eat right.

“Less activity and higher carbohydrate and less protein consumption among children makes them pile up kilos. Studies suggest if you are overweight at age 6, then the chances are that you will be an overweight or obese adult,” says Jatana.

Read: Healthy food is no longer boring

Tell them why

Children are logical, say educationists, and will listen if you explain why you want them to eat certain things and shun others. Krupa Parekh, a nutritionist at Wellintra Fitness Consultants in Mumbai’s Oshiwara neighbourhood, collaborated with Sheth Virchand Dhanji Devshi (SVDD) School in Ghatkopar to organise a six-week interactive workshop between January-February in 2012.

“Pictorial presentations were used to make children understand healthy eating,” says Parekh. “Children were shown how to differentiate between junk food and fresh food on the basis of how they are packaged, the food pyramid depicted the six basic nutrients, and the right proportions,” says Parekh. “We made sure it was a visual treat for children so they can absorb as much as they can while having fun with it.”

Sunita George, the principal of Bombay Sottish School in Powai says that the best way forward is to make parents responsible for the eating habits of a group of children. Every month, a group of parent volunteers visit the pre-primary and primary section and decide the canteen’s menu, make surprise visits to the kitchen and discuss health issues of the kids.

“Each parent takes turns to contribute a healthy morning snack for their child’s class of 35,” she says. The school has also banned aerated drinks and packaged food with preservatives in the canteen.

“When students start becoming independent and go out with friends, they learn that having junk once in a while doesn’t make a difference, but if you reinforce healthy habits since childhood, it restricts these choices to once-in-a-while,” says George.

The school is also planning to collaborate with nutritionists to teach healthy eating habits to students from Class 7 and up leading up to the autumn break.

Read: Are food labels helping or wrecking your diet?

Offer healthy options

“Tiffin boxes stress every mother short on time, which may prompt them to send ready-made packaged food,” says Dhvani Shah, dietitian and a food blogger. “The sugar in processed food interferes with a child’s level of concentration,” she says, adding that even bread, butter and jam or cookies and biscuits may have such an effect. “Many teachers complain that children become irritable after their break.”

She suggests children be given foods that increase energy without spiking sugar levels. “Dried fruits and nuts are a good option, along with sprouted lentils and fruits,” she says.

The next step is getting food companies to declare what they put into packaged food. Ananya Chaddha, 12, a student of class VII of The Shri Ram School, Gurgaon, has started an initiative called ‘Tell us what we eat’ for improved food labelling.

“Apart from focusing on changing our physical habits and our daily diet, we want to push food companies to provide more information on the packaging. With rising childhood obesity, we need to wake up and take control of our future,” says Chaddha.