Brain food

Schools are getting behind the push to banish the junk and boost energy and concentration in the classroom


There’s no debating that the UAE has a child obesity problem. More than 34 percent of our kids are overweight or obese, studies show, and the facts don’t lie. But rather than leaving it to parents to battle unhealthy eating habits at home, schools across the emirates are on a mission to stop our children gorging on junk food, as well as reducing their sugar intake and raising awareness of the importance of eating well.

At the forefront of this campaign is school catering company Slices, which is currently supplying healthy meals to canteens in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, as well as delivering educational programmes to teachers, parents and pupils on the benefits of eating properly during the school day.

“There is so much evidence-based research that shows that when children have a healthy breakfast in the morning, their concentration levels improve, they are more alert, do better in class, and have healthier relationships with their friends,” says Slices’ schools food programme director, Louise Du Plessis, a trained dietitian and nutritionist.

Du Plessis is responsible for working with the company’s in-house chef to develop menus for children that are balanced and varied. “The same counts for during the school day,” she adds. “If children have a healthy snack and lunch then they will be more likely to survive the long school day they still have ahead of them.”

Slices offers a range of services, from full canteen provision, to smaller-scale prepacked meal and snack deliveries, all with one key element – everything is baked and prepared fresh for distribution, every single day.

One happy customer is Mark Pearce, bursar for Taleem’s Uptown School in Mirdiff. “I worked on a number of healthy eating initiatives for schools in the UK before I came to Dubai so I was delighted to find a company developing similar initiatives for the UAE,” says Pearce.

“Slices was appointed last summer by Taaleem to provide the lunchtime meal service in a number of its schools with the emphasis on developing a healthy, attractive and nutritious menu, which moved away from the provision of processed food towards one that reflected the dietary needs of our school community of 1,300 youngsters across all age spectrums. The service is constantly evolving and we are working with Slices to develop a service which is responsive to the needs of our school community.”

But it’s not always an easy shift to make, as Du Plessis explains. “I think a lot of what children eat and would be willing to eat has to do with what they have been exposed to, which is why it’s so important, as a parent, to offer your child variety and expose them to real and fresh foods. If you don’t, then a child will only get used to so-called ‘white foods’ like pasta, rice, cereal and bread, and it becomes really hard to get them to eat other foods, because it doesn’t taste like the foods they are used to.”

Some of the dishes Slices serves in schools include favourites such as lasagna, cannelloni, cottage pie and Italian meatballs, all made from scratch with no added preservatives and packed full of the good stuff. “They also love our Burger Days, where we create our own burger patties with wholemeal buns, fresh vegetables and our own homemade tomato sauce. And for snacks, they like simple foods like cheese on toast, or little mini oatmeal cookies.”

Education and parent engagement are key, however, says Du Plessis. “We host parent lunches where we invite mums and dads to try the food that kids eat. This way, they get to see for themselves what the food looks like, how it is served and how it tastes and we have found this to be a very effective way to get parents behind us.”

Du Plessis also works with the schools to deliver workshops and assemblies on the importance of healthy eating, how to spot hidden sugars and how eating well is going to help kids learn better in the classroom and run faster in the playground. “I vary my approach depending on the age of the children I’m talking to,” she explains. “I often start with a blind-folded activity where they have to guess fruits and vegetables in a bag. Sometimes we have a competition for who can pack the healthiest lunchbox.”

One of the biggest challenges for parents preparing their own packed lunches, though, is spotting hidden fat and sugar, which can turn a seemingly healthy meal into a calorific nightmare. “For example, juices marked as being ‘healthy’, are often loaded with sugar and, given that some children have two or three juices a day, it all adds up to a shocking sugar intake.”

It’s sobering stuff when you think about it, and each and every one of us is guilty of throwing together a snack box with a cursory it-looks-sort-of-healthy glance, or just handing over lunch money in the morning rush, without really thinking about it. So, isn’t it about time we paid closer attention to what’s filling those little tummies during the school day? We should all talk to our schools and work together for a healthier food future for our kids.
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