Jamie Oliver’s campaign against low-quality school meals attracted a lot of media attention, and the celebrity chef did a good job of improving the quality of meals provided in schools up and down the country, but there is still a lot of work to be done. In an ideal world, every child would be fed nutritionally balanced, filling and high-quality food that was free from preservatives and unnatural additives. Unfortunately, we are a long way from achieving that ideal. As a parent, you may feed your child a Paleo diet while they are at home, but once they go to school they are likely to be fed fish fingers, chips, sandwiches on white bread and other less than ideal options.

The Problem with Processed Food

As adults, we know that processed foods are not good for us, and we probably resolved to avoid feeding them to our children as they got older. Processed foods are addictive — they contain balances of fat, sugar and salt that are not found in nature and that stimulate our body’s pleasure and reward response to extreme levels. It is easy to become hooked on the taste and feeling of eating processed food, causing binge-eating and weight gain.

Adults understand that the food they eat has an impact on their health and wellbeing, and they are better armed to either eat processed food in moderation or to simply avoid the foods entirely if they test their willpower too much. Children, on the other hand, do not have the knowledge or the willpower to control their diets. As a parent you can avoid the issue of sweets, crisps and soda while your child is very young, but as soon as you send them to school they will be exposed to those foods. Your child may enjoy the Paleo diet when they are three, but if they turn five, go to school and are exposed to an environment where cakes are a reward and vegetables are “yucky”, then the combination of peer pressure and exposure to hyper-palatable foods may cause their preferences to change.

Fussy Eaters

Some schools try to excuse their nutritionally poor offerings by saying that they have a lot of fussy eaters, and that processed foods and junk such as chips and pizzas are the only thing that those kids will eat. While it is true that dealing with fussy eaters is difficult, it is possible to get kids to experiment. Young children, in particular, pick up the habits of those around them. If healthy foods are the only foods on the school meals menu, then they will try them. They will see their friends eating them, assume that the foods are normal and acceptable to eat, and then consume them themselves.

By providing kids with healthy options and not making an issue out of that kind of food, schools will go a long way towards helping children develop a positive relationship with food. When food becomes a fuel, albeit one that is enjoyable to eat rather than a reward mechanism, then the entire way that people think about diets changes. Childhood obesity is a serious issue, and comfort eating is a major contributing factor to it. We can fix the problem if we simply don’t allow children to develop an association between calorie-dense sweet treats and rewards. The same goes for punishment. Making vegetables something that you “must eat” even though you don’t want to may seem like a good thing because it ensures that the child eats their vegetables, but it turns meal time into a battlefield. Don’t force a child to eat something they don’t want; simply give them lots of healthy choices and let them make their own mind up.

Nutrition for Learning

The Paleo diet is full of foods that are filling and nutritious. Meat, fish, vegetables and nuts provide the body with the right combination of protein, fat, vitamins and minerals to support muscle growth, cognitive function and healthy teeth and bones. This is something that every parent and teacher should support.

School meals, at least the chicken nuggets and chips variety that are so common in many local authorities, do not offer the same kind of nutritional balance. This leads to a situation where children end up feeling hungry an hour after lunch. Their concentration suffers and as a result so does their behaviour. Hungry children are not likely to learn effectively; they are more interested in where their next snack is going to come from than they are in what the teacher is saying.

Eating low-quality food for lunch has a knock-on effect of causing snacking later in the day. A hungry child is more likely to opt for ice-cream or chocolate from the tuck shop instead of eating an apple or a banana. Since children can’t brush their teeth while they are at school, any exposure to a lot of sugar is likely to put the health of their teeth at risk. This could be avoided if they simply ate better foods at lunch time.

Options for Parents

If you are determined to make sure that your child gets a high-quality, Paleo-friendly lunch, then your options are limited. You can campaign for the school to have the menu updated (many schools have responded to outside pressure and improved the quality of their school meals), or you can tell the school that your child needs a special diet and send them to school with a packed lunch. There are a lot of Paleo-friendly packed lunch ideas, and if you have the time and money to prepare a lunch box each day, then this is probably the most nutritious option.

However, if you do opt for a packed lunch, you should be aware that school meal times are an important social time, and your child may feel excluded if they bring in a lunch because they may be forced to sit at a different table or join a different queue to enter the hall at lunch time. This may seem like a minor thing to you, but for a child being left out of lunch-time bonding can be a painful experience.