Eden Foodservice, part of Interserve, is showing its continued commitment to improving school meals by listening, learning and acting upon the needs and requirements of both the schools and the children they serve.

The business recently conducted a round table debate with adults and children, directly comparing their views on school meals and their feelings towards food through asking ˜what children really want and need from school meals”. The debate revealed that children have a shrewd understanding of healthy eating. Eating together with either family or friends was also viewed as being very important to both groups, with each table advocating the importance of talking together.

When it came to being adventurous with new foods and trying something new for both the pupils and adults it was revealed as often happening when food is prepared or presented by someone else. Held at St Mary’s Catholic Primary School in Caddington, Bedfordshire, the debate was entitled  ˜Big Plates Little Plates,” to represent the table of eight adults known as  ˜Big Plates.” The table comprised parents, teachers, Paul Salisbury - managing director of Eden, Maggie Wood the Eden catering manager and David Persaud “ Food for Life Catering Mark development manager.  ˜Little Plates” consisted of a separate table made up of 12 children from the Pupil Council - aged from five to nine, and supervised by Eden’s executive chef, Cliff Gore.

Compered by Sarah Grant, co-ordinator of the School Food Plan, the 80 minute discussion focused on six core questions. These were given to the adults and pupils to hear their thoughts and insights. Kick starting the debate the first question asked was, ˜What is more important to you about your food - that it is healthy, that it looks good, or that it tastes good?” The children unanimously agreed that it should be healthy followed by that it should look good, with taste ranking third. One of the pupils from the council commented: ‘Well, if it looks good it doesn’t mean it’s going to taste good. At lunchtime I had a healthy crumble, it didn’t look good but it tasted really good.  The pupil went on to explain that this initial thinking was due to the fact he “couldn’t see what was under the custard, but it tasted great”.

Over on the adults table the conclusion was that healthy is best with the following rationale given by a parent: ‘We started our discussion from a healthy point of view. We decided if you cook healthy food correctly, then it will be tasty and look good as well.  Different dining experiences also influenced the adults” preferences. For example, eating out of home was associated with more of a treat, so look and taste became more important in the selection process. In contrast meals at home were where the adults felt healthy choices should be made. In conclusion to question one, all the adults agreed that, irrespective of whether at school or home, children eat first with their eyes. For question two each table was provided with a sample menu and asked, “As a group, choose your preferred starter, main and pudding from the selections on this menu, telling us why you’ve made your choices.  The objective of the question was to see if the parents and children could distinguish between healthy and unhealthy choices.

Nine of the 12 pupils opted for the garlic bread starter, two chose vegetable and lentil soup with a crusty wholemeal bread and one opted for the crunchy vegetable sticks. The children’s basis for choosing the garlic bread was taste over health. When it came to mains the majority of pupils opted for the healthy spiced chicken and vegetable whole-wheat wrap with crunchy mixed salad. This was over the alternative options of a sausage roll with chips, or a roasted vegetable pizza. Every pupil picked the chocolate and marshmallow dessert. When asked why they’d made these choices the children were in agreement that starter and dessert should be viewed as a treat and mains should be healthy. The adults deliberated much longer than the children on this question, concluding that they couldn’t come to a unanimous decision on the starter and main course choices as they felt it was down to personal choice. One of the adults summed it up as: everyone’s different, everyone’s got different tastes.  However there was no quibbling on the ˜Big Plates” table when it came to dessert, with all opting for oaty apple and pear crumble with custard.

Contrary to the children’s viewpoint, the adults felt that starters and mains should be healthy with desserts considered a treat. An ˜Eat Well Plate,” was presented to each table to determine their knowledge of the food groups. Created by the Department of Health, an ˜Eat Well Plate” is a pictorial summary of the main food groups and their recommended proportions for a healthy diet. Reassuringly all the pupils had worked with the  ˜Eat Well Plate” before. However this was the first time for the parents at their table. Throughout the exercise the pupils worked confidently, placing the cards into the correct groups. They understood that some foods cover more than one category, whilst also being highly knowledgeable about how much from each category they should be eating on a daily basis. One parent added:  œI know my kids come home saying they had to have so much across the fruit and vegetable section of the plate “ that’s great. When making a meal, I’m going to pick more from fruit and vegetables and less from the high in fat section.  A parent concluded: “The next time I go out I’m actually going to say to my kids, you order my dinner “ I’m going to see what I get. 

The discussion then moved onto the social aspect of eating together whether in school or at home. 11 out of the 12 children agreed that they preferred to eat as a group, either with family or friends. When asked why, one pupil commented: Because you can have a discussion about things. However another pupil remarked that they prefer to eat alone because:  I like to get a bit of privacy when I eat, because my brother and sister are always talking.  The adults also acknowledged the importance of sitting down together as a family with Sunday as the main day to do this, as sometimes, due to work, it is not always possible during the week. One parent commented:  We like to sit down as a family because then you talk about your day, what you’ve done. I think educationally as parents you can talk to your children about the food they’re eating and why it is beneficial or not!  The debate then moved onto determining how adventurous both groups are when it comes to trying different foods they’d never had before.

Over on  ˜Little Plates,” a pupil commented that eating as a group encouraged her to try new things. Another pupil said,  œI tried broccoli at school. I’m getting into broccoli now , whilst another said:  œI feel I try to try something new every day!  The topic showcased the adventurous spirit of the  ˜Little Plates” table with some of the children saying they’ve even tried and enjoyed mussels, octopus and lobster when out with family or on holiday. The ˜Big Plates” table kicked off the discussion with much laughter, with one parent saying:  I’m banned from doing the shopping anymore because I’m a marketing dream. I have to try anything new that I see.  Another adult replied:  “I don’t actually shop in supermarkets, I make a real point of trying to use our local farms and farmers markets and as a result I’m not open to the marketing side of things. Marketing tends to take place around processed foods, you’re not marketed to around fruits and vegetables. 

When discussing how to get their children to try different foods, one parent commented: “We took the kids to a farm so we could pick our own. When it comes to vegetables, my daughter only eats potatoes or carrots, that’s it. We offer her money to try something different even bribe her, she won’t do it. She was picking cabbages and broccoli and absolutely loved it, then we took it home and cooked the dinner “ it was so good!  The adult table were also more likely to try something different when travelling abroad as the produce is, as one adult reminisced,  “Just a visual feast and so fresh!  All agreed that in a restaurant they were more inclined to try something new but were perhaps not so adventurous when it came to the family weekly shop. Feedback from both groups suggests that, regardless of age, trying something new often happens when its prepared or presented by others. The final topic of the day was centred around the importance of growing your own food in gardens, allotments or schools, as opposed to buying everything from the shops.

Over on ˜Big Plates” one parent commented, “I think it’s really important to get kids to grow their own food. We grow strawberries and tomatoes in hanging baskets but we try and make sure we grow something, so the children can sample different things. Another commented, “I think it is really important, particularly for the children to really engage and understand where things come from and that it doesn’t just come from a packet.’

In summary, the adults were in agreement that it is very important for the children to understand and be talked through the process of how a product gets to its end point, including the science behind it. Over on ˜Little Plates” some of the pupils were already growing their own food including carrots and strawberries. One pupil commented that, “Me and my mum know how to grow.”

The children were also extremely savvy to the seasons, recognising that they could only grow certain foods at certain times of year. They also acknowledged the importance of freshness with one commenting: “You need to grow food because it is fresh and you can eat it when it’s at its best.” Paul Salisbury, managing director, Eden commented: “I was really encouraged to see the children’s understanding and awareness of eating healthily through ˜Big Plates Little Plates.” We are committed to engaging with pupils in ways that are both exciting and innovative to ensure they always have a voice. We’d previously taught the pupils about the “Eat Well Plate” and it was especially rewarding to see how knowledgeable they were on this. We were always aware that children eat with their eyes, however, what we discovered, is that they don’t always make decisions based on looks alone, they do think about what they’re eating. He continues: “The discussion has shown that children are really inquisitive about food. They will try new things and if they don’t like it the first time, they can be persuaded to try it again.

This insight gives us, even more scope to continue in our quest to work in partnership with schools, parents and pupils to provide children with good quality, great tasting food. He concludes: “It’s fantastic to hear that the pupils are genuinely interested in where there food comes from. Hearing their thoughts on food first hand is absolutely vital to us, as it ensures we continue to listen, learn and act upon their needs to deliver great, nutritionally balanced school meals.” www.edenfoodservice.co.uk

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