It has been reported this week that dentists are calling for school puddings to be taken off the menu. Having had my daughter start school and experience the free school meals first hand this September it must be said that something appears to be going amiss.

The vision
Initially myself along with many other parents were excited about the prospect of free school dinners. We were fairly confident that these would be healthy and balanced after being tackled by Jamie Oliver and team. However, it seems that a shift in very recent updated dietary guidelines – namely with regard to sugar and calorie requirements are yet to be embedded.

Strategies such as The School Food Plan are great but focus largely on the eating environment rather than the finer details of how much sugar and calories school children are getting in their lunchtime meals.  Equally stamps and labels such as the Soil Associations Food for Life are great in ensuring that food is sourced ethically and environmentally but this doesn’t mean that they are fully aligned with very latest nutrition guidelines. For example, within this specified criteria it simply states that: “in baked products the ratio of sugar: flour in sweet recipes should be 1:2 or less for 4 points”.  However, the deeper question is should we be giving so many sweet baked products to children in school in the first place?

So the initial vision was a varied, healthy menu with included a dessert – ok with that. This was listed as being yoghurt and/or fruit.

The reality
So week 1. Monday – muffin (adult size for a young child), Tuesday – Green Jelly and Cream (doubtfully not low sugar), Wednesday – Ice cream, Thursday – Butterscotch tart, Friday – Chocolate cake and wait for it…chocolate custard. Some children (including my own and others at the school) have never been exposed to so many sugary and indeed calorific puddings in one week.
So from a calorific and sugar perspective alone a chocolate muffin can provide around 300 calories and 20g sugar. Multiply this by five puddings over a week and then over a month and sugar and calorie tallies begin to rocket.

From an energy stance a 4-year old needs around 1300 calories daily – so one muffin is providing 23% of this energy right away. Along with this the 20g sugar is a young child’s entire daily sugar tally in one gobbled down school muffin.

The guidelines
So there have been a few shifts in guidelines in recent years. First up is the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition Carbohydrate and Health report which advises that: 4 to 6 years olds have no more than 19 grams free sugars daily, those aged 7 to 10 years no more than 24 grams and children aged 11 years and older no more than 30 grams. Straight away I am very doubtful that portion sizes or food choices in schools are incremental and reflective of this.

Secondly this year we have the calorie reduction report highlighting the scale of childhood obesity and the need to reflect on the food environment and calorie exposures. This is where we now need to look at school menus and update these. Portion sizes should be child appropriate and the pudding issue re-evaluated.
Thirdly the Public Health England children’s snacking campaign now specifies that children should not be having any more than two refined 100-calorie snacks. For parents it’s hard. Constantly battling with an obesogenic environment and now have to pull out the low-calorie treats at pick up time. Many parents have come up to me and asked about this and what they should offer given the scale of sweet puddings.

The solution
Overall thee solution seems simple. Cut energy-dense and sugary puddings and serve plain yoghurt and fruit. All children can have the same. They will then be getting nutritious calories instead of surplus energy and sugar.  If they are served these should be ‘now and again’ in moderation rather than daily.

The question is why are such puddings being served? Is it to people please? A simple lack of knowledge? Or have traditional puddings simply gone out of date? Those I have contacted say the school dinners align with standards.  I guess main the question here is with which standards?  It’s certainly hard to know but what I do know is that children’s health should come first and foremost. We shouldn’t should presume that the boxes have been ticked.  And finally…do those boxes need updating?

So, it has to be said the dentists do have a point. Something appears to be going amiss and now seems to be the time to re-evaluate those puddings…

Related references:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-45623746

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/sacns-sugars-and-health-recommendations-why-5

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/calorie-reduction-the-scope-and-ambition-for-action

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/phe-launches-change4life-campaign-around-childrens-snacking