My Viewpoint: Wan Mak improving children’s diets out of home

SODEXO'S HEAD of nutrition and dietetics, Wan Mak discusses how we can all play our part in improving children's diets in the out of home market.

Go back eight years to 2005 when we first saw a change to school dinners as a result of Jamie Oliver’s TV documentaries, which revealed to the nation the poor standards of food quality and nutritional delivery. As a result strict legally binding food and nutritional standards were imposed on state schools throughout England. The likes of turkey twizzlers became a thing of the past.

No doubt for those that serve school meals these standards are all too familiar.

In 2013 food and nutrition for children is once again in the spot light with the Education Secretary, Michael Gove announcing the new School Food Plan to 2018, based on a government commissioned review led by the restaurateurs Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent. School dinners are now much better than pre-2005, but the new School Food Plan does highlight that only 1% of packed lunches provided by parents met with the nutritional standards applied to school food. There appears to be a misconception by parents that a packed lunch is healthier. What about foods provided to children outside of the home and in schools? Are the same nutritional balance and standards adopted by restaurants and pubs? It appears not. According to the Soil Association and their recent undercover research with Organix, 21 of the biggest high street restaurants and pubs revealed shortcomings around choice and healthy foods offered to children. 57% of those surveyed had manufactured meats like nuggets, sausages and burgers in most or all of their meat dishes. Main meals did not always come with a portion of vegetables and more than 80% had no indication of where the food came from.

Knowing the recommended benefits of eating ‘your 5 a day’, for those eating out frequently this could pose some challenges. Only 13% of boys and 7% of girls aged 11–18 years are reported to consume the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables per day (DH 2011).

With the School Food Plan revealing a possible lack of understanding by some parents in what constitutes a healthy balanced packed lunch, would parents know what to look out for or ask for when eating out?

Following their survey the Soil Association and Organix created the ‘Out to Lunch’ campaign that supports parents who want better for their children. Parents are guided to ask restaurants and pubs to offer healthy choices, made from fresh food that they can trust, and then share their experiences on Facebook or Twitter. A softer approach impacted through consumer pressure instead of enforced regulations and standards, which although can lead to change it may not always be the answer or welcomed.

This campaign highlights to restaurants and pubs what their current offering is and what needs to be changed. After all, one in nine meals are eaten outside the home.

While these basic changes are just a drop in the ocean compared with the stringent food and nutritional standards in schools, it is nevertheless a great start to influence the out of home setting to offer more healthy choices to children. Any improvement can only contribute to a reduction in the current alarming childhood obesity rates.

We can all play our part in improving children's diets.

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