How can school caterers help pupils’ well-being?

Sue Parfett reveals how engaging pupils in food and nutrition can help to ease stress

Exam time is in full swing with pupils (and teachers) having spent months preparing, studying and practising for these life-changing events. You could say that it is probably the first time that many of us experience stress. I can remember my maths teacher telling my friends and I, as we lined up outside the exam room, that it was all to do with being prepared and, if we’d done the work we had nothing to worry about. I am sure he was just trying to help, but it certainly increased our stress levels.

Helping pupils feel ‘relaxed’ whilst at school is something that we actively support our clients with. As education caterers, our role in this is to ensure the food on offer and the dining environments both give pupils the opportunity to take ‘time out’ from school activities and provide them with the necessary energy and nutrition to meet the demands of their day. One way in which we do this is to bring high-street influences to pupils, offering a wide range of food options as well as a place to sit and relax in their breaks, free periods or before or after school. In addition, offering older pupils the alternative of a lighter meal in a more relaxed environment, can be so useful in the stressful build-up to exams or an important sports fixture.

The modern pupil demands transparency, both in terms of nutrition, provenance and food preparation. Current food trends are also increasingly placing an emphasis on empowered health choices and simple, natural food. People want to know more about exactly what’s in their food, where it’s come from, how it’s been farmed, what allergens are in it, and so on. Our approach to this and the well-being of pupils differs depending on age group and gender. 

A child’s concerns about these things change as they get older. Even then, boys and girls tend to have different ideas about nutrition. 

We often see that younger children are interested in how their bodies work and the way that food fuels this. Young children have a wonder and excitement for science which tends to fade as they get older and become less interested in the miracles of the human body. We can, though, use their early interest to develop good habits and build a healthy body for the future. For example, our weekly interactive initiatives, such as ‘Fisherman Finn’, are accompanied by interesting facts and exciting dishes to try. Our theme days we encourage pupils to eat, think and learn at the same time. For senior pupils, our ‘Meat Free Days’, highlight the hidden proteins in vegetarian cuisine but also promote environmental activities, something we know they are interested in.  

As children enter their teens, some start to become less interested in nutrition and well-being as more personal concerns take over. They are at an age when they feel most invincible. Their diets, if they make a conscious decision, become a tool to achieve another, usually appearance-related, end. Where we do capture their attention is preparing them for life after school. 

For example, an aspect of our cookery class, known as ‘Beyond Beans’, teaches pupils to cook at least 10 simple dishes. 

When it comes to our services at boarding schools, we like to make the effort to spice up a boarder’s routine in the interest of general happiness and wellbeing. 

In addition, the social element of eating experiences is hugely important for developing teenagers, and for us all, for that matter. So providing them with a variety of engaging and exciting culinary experiences can make all the difference in making them feel this is the place they want to be.

Thinking back to the comments of my maths teacher, things were very different then and I am not even sure the word well-being was being bandied about. Thankfully I passed that exam and all the others too, but I am sure that the experiences we offer today’s pupils may well have reduced my nerves.