One size never fits all when it comes to catering provisions within a school. Allergies, intolerances, and personal or religious preferences all have an impact on the provision of food, so the ability to cater for diverse dietary requirements is an important aspect of providing nutritious meals, and in some circumstances, is imperative to keeping children safe.
Emily Stuart, Dietitian at apetito, a leading partner in the provision of nutritious meals to the schools’ sector, looks at the complexities of catering and how schools can manage these requirements in a way that is straightforward and stress-free.
Fundamentally, one of the top priorities for schools when looking at menu provision is the delivery of exceptional food and nutrition. Children need great nutrition to help them grow and learn. Schools need meals that offer guaranteed consistency and quality.
We know that there is no ‘off the shelf’ solution to catering, and with dietary requirements and preferences varying from child to child, catering can become complex. This is particularly true when safety becomes a crucial factor, and a school is managing multiple allergies within the setting.
It is important for staff to understand how to build menus for all dietary requirements, as providing a menu that both tastes great and offers variety, in addition to being safe and nutritious, is the key to a great dining experience.
One of the most effective measures to ensure a successful operation is to give all staff involved in the catering operation training in food allergy management. This includes understanding how allergies can affect someone to implementing procedures for serving children with allergies and intolerances safely.
Almost 1 in 12 children suffer from a food allergy and allergies are becoming increasingly common (Allergy UK). There are 14 major food allergies recognised by EU Allergy Law which must legally be listed on food packaging, for example, they may be highlighted in bold or the text capitalised. Common allergies among children include peanuts and tree nuts, eggs, cereals containing gluten, and milk. However, children could have an allergy to anything (including those not listed within the 14 required by law); it depends on the individual.
Some people can have extreme and severe reactions, known as Anaphylaxis, which affects the whole body and can cause symptoms such as flushing of the skin, swelling of the throat, alterations in heart rate, and in severe cases, a loss of life.
Coeliac disease, an autoimmune disease rather than an allergy or intolerance, causes the lining of the small intestine to become damaged and affects 1 in 100 children in the UK (Coeliac UK). People with coeliac disease must remove gluten, a protein found in the cereals such as wheat, rye, and barley, from their diet.
A change in dietary trends – catering for a plant-based diet
Many families are now choosing to raise their children on a vegetarian or plant-focused diet for many reasons, such as animal welfare, the environment, or health reasons.
Vegetarian dishes must not contain any part of an animal including meat, fats, or derivatives such as gelatine or rennet. In addition to the above, vegan dishes must not contain any ingredients which come from an animal including dairy, eggs, or honey.
While this may sound a little restrictive, there are plenty of foods vegetarians and vegans can eat, and many recipes can be adapted using vegan alternatives. What’s more, all children can enjoy plant-based meals.
Schools might want to consider introducing Meat Free Mondays to their menus as a way of increasing variety for all. Alternatively, menus could include a meat-free option similar to the meat option to promote inclusivity. There have been children enjoying vegetarian diets for many years, although the move over to veganism among children has been more recent.
Whilst it is possible to meet the nutritional needs of the whole family on a vegan diet, there are some very specific nutritional considerations, that we mustn’t forget. Vegan diets can be inadequate in nutrients such as calcium, iron, and vitamin B12, and focusing on wholegrain starchy foods only can fill up tummies before children have consumed the energy and nutrients they need. The Vegan Society is a fantastic resource for anyone wishing to follow a vegan diet that is nutritionally complete and includes essential information on topics such as supplementation and nutrient-rich vegan foods.
Religious and cultural dietary requirements
We all live in a wonderfully diverse culture with a wide range of religious or cultural beliefs, and so it is essential for nurseries and schools to recognise and cater for these dietary needs.
It is important to remember, dietary practices between and within different faiths can be diverse. Some children may exclude certain foods from their diet, while others may have specific dietary requirements such as halal or kosher.
Removing the risk of cross-contamination
The risks of cross-contamination can be significantly reduced when using prepared meals. These will have been produced in a strictly controlled environment, safely packed, and labelled. Naturally, this means there is a reduced chance of cross-contamination between ingredients, during storage and during meal preparation. For added reassurance, at apetito, we see the importance in testing a sample from every batch of meals cooked in our kitchens in our accredited, on-site laboratory.
The importance of choice and variety
We all know that food needs to be nutritionally balanced to help to maintain health and wellbeing, but it is also important to remember that food is incredibly emotive. Schools should strive to ensure the diverse needs of children are met and are equally included on all occasions. This means understanding the importance of various dietary requirements and offering diverse menus, providing a range of options, and encouraging children to try new foods. If unsure of a child’s requirements, the best way to understand what is suitable for a child is to speak to their parents or carers.
With a little thought and planning, catering for those with bespoke dietary requirements does not need to be restrictive or create extra work. This process can be made easier by working with suppliers who offer dedicated support to each school, working with the staff to plan bespoke menus that address the specific needs of every child.