201608-Neeson-Megan-Ms Jun16Parents want kids to eat healthy food, kids just want tasty food. Nutritionist Megan Neeson brings the parties to the table.

In Australia, 25% of our children are overweight or obese and many do not adhere to the Australian Dietary Guidelines. So what if we just told kids to eat more ‘green’ foods?201608-Child-eating-healthy-drmstime

Sounds easy enough, but unfortunately this conjures up images of spinach and brussel sprouts that will have many kids turning away. While these are nutritious choices, ‘green’ foods by our standards are far more interesting.

Public and Catholic schools in WA must follow the Department of Education’s Healthy Food and Drink (HFD) policy, underpinned by a ‘traffic light’ system. The policy makes it easy and equitable for all canteens to offer a majority of nutritious foods.

‘Green’ foods are high in nutrients and low in saturated fat and sodium – for example, fruit, vegetables, dairy, wholegrain cereals and lean meat. In comparison, ‘amber’ foods contain some nutritional value but can contribute excess energy and ‘red’ foods are energy dense and nutrient poor, often high in fat, sugar and salt.

According to the WA School Canteen Association (WASCA) on average, the menus they assess contain 71% ‘green’ items. This includes some pretty tasty fare – chicken and salad wraps, frittata, stuffed spuds, fruit pikelets, sushi and lasagna.

When a high school canteen in Victoria Park asked the students what they wanted from the canteen, they requested more homemade items. The menu offers an impressive 90% ‘green’ food including burritos, breakfast muffins, piri piri chicken and stir-fry vegetables with noodles. According to the manager, as long as it looks good, tastes good and is value for money, students will choose the healthy options.

The biggest barrier facing school canteens is conflicting messages in the school environment. For example, parents providing highly processed packaged foods in lunchboxes; teachers rewarding good behavior with chocolates; and the most frustrating of all, a sausage sizzle at the sports carnival. These are all missed opportunities to promote consistent healthy messages.

WASCA supports schools to implement the HFD policy. One strategy is to work with food industry to increase the range of food and beverages available. WASCA produces the Star Choice™ Buyer’s Guide, referred to by many canteen managers as their ‘bible’. The Guide is a register of over 900 manufactured products that are colour coded ‘green’ and ‘amber’. It is also used by community groups, sporting clubs and hospitals to assist in stocking and promoting healthier choices.

Some schools are leading the way and embracing a whole school approach to healthy eating. They offer 100% green menus, promote environmental sustainability with ‘wrapper free Wednesdays’, have a ‘water only’ policy and use produce grown in the school kitchen garden. Schools are reaping the rewards. Children who are healthy and eating well, learn better, it’s a win-win.

ED: Nutritionist Megan Neeson is Executive Officer at the WA School Canteen Association.

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