Call for fewer unhealthy options at UAE school canteens

Although schools will have healthy options on offer at canteens, they will also stock calorie and sugar-loaded pastries, muffins and cakes.

Deira International School has made a change to provide healthier lunch options for their pupils. Anna Nielsen for The National
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DUBAI // Children’s apathy to eating healthy food needs to be overcome by putting fewer unhealthy options in school canteen menus.

Pupils at a Dubai school were asked about the fare served in their canteen. Although the menu had healthy offerings such as green salads, lentil soup, sweet-and-sour fish and chicken fajitas, each with listed calorie content, one counter sold calorie-loaded pastries, muffins and cakes.

“I use the canteen on Thursdays as it’s easy,” said Narindra, 15. “I buy a chicken, cheese and mayo panini and a juice. The food is healthy but I don’t care that much. You can buy jacket potatoes, which are healthy, but you can also buy sorbet and pastries.”

Ishram, 12, buys food on a Monday and Wednesday.

“I need to wait for my brother after school so don’t get home until later,” he said. “I buy pizzas, cookies and a sorbet – it is quite expensive.”

Roland, 14, said the best thing on sale was ice-cream.

“The canteen also sells hot sandwiches,” he said. “There is some healthy food to choose from but some of it costs Dh25. It is mainly used by teachers.”

Christina Spong, a British teacher who has worked at several Dubai schools, said children must be offered good quality food for them to choose healthier alternatives.

“I used to find pupils who had not had breakfast were the least likely to pay attention to the morning lesson. After lunch, I could tell which children had eaten sweets or junk food as they were hyperactive,” she said.

“By the end of the day, the children who had not eaten well were tired, struggling to concentrate and falling asleep. It was clear their diet was having a negative impact on their school day.

“I would often ask students who was eating a proper breakfast, and it varied greatly. Most were eating something but quite a few were eating pastries or doughnuts. There was no restriction to what they could eat in the canteen.”

Child diabetes specialist Dr Shadi Hani Tabba said that smaller portion sizes are important.

“Portion control gives children an idea of what is a healthy amount of food to eat, and helps deliver that message,” he said.

“There should be restrictions on what schools are selling in their canteens. Some parents are doing a great job at home with their child’s diet, and then the child is going to school and eating crisps, pastries and fizzy drinks.”