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Guideline 4: Healthy nutrition in schools

A school food programme, that is both filling and nutritious, will prepare kids to learn at their best. Whether you want to develop and improve a food programme, or you want to ensure your students make healthier food choices, implementing a nutrition policy will be a beneficial addition to your school.

Providing a "nutritious" food programme may sound challenging, but can be as simple as providing low-sugar cereal and milk with fruit for a breakfast club, or having some fruit available in the classroom for students to snack on. Changing your school nutrition policy needn’t be overly difficult either – you could begin by considering a ban on all sugary / energy drinks.

This guideline gives practical advice for altering your school food policy and delivering nutritious food programmes.

Putting nutrition into practice

Essentially, a nutrition policy is a statement outlining the school’s position regarding food and nutrition. Such a policy sets short, medium and long-term goals to make healthy eating and lifestyles an integral part of your school culture. For instance, a short term goal could be to make your school "water only", while a medium to long term goal could be to align your canteen menu with your policy.

Keep it consistent

Teachers and staff play a key role in ensuring all direct and indirect nutritional messages are relevant and consistent. If the aim of your policy for example is to have children eating healthily, then teachers and staff need to be active role models and eat healthily themselves.

Your school health policy will need to balance good, everyday practice of healthy eating with "sometimes" treats for special occasions – such as school fairs and fundraisers (see ideas for healthy fundraising and party food ideas for healthy alternatives to consider).

A consistent food policy needs to consider the wide range of school events taking place throughout the year. If food is provided regularly at events, it should reinforce the healthy eating messages that you are promoting. If, for example, your school has a health problem that you are trying to address, then having food and drink that are high in fat, sugar and salt at school events would send conflicting messages. Providing lollies or chocolates for good behaviour also undermines healthy eating messages. Consider alternative rewards such as free time, outdoor activities, and board games.

Aligning your school canteen with healthy eating messages

If your observations and assessment of your students found that poor diet was affecting their learning and behaviour, then the school canteen can play an important role.

It could be students are going to the dairy to buy pies and sugary drinks simply because there are few or no options available to purchase better quality food at school.

By providing food and drink choices that are healthy, tasty and affordable, students can act on the healthy eating messages promoted by the school’s nutrition policy. Below are some useful resources to help you on your way.

School canteen menu development

A carefully planned menu with a variety of healthy and attractive foods will attract students to the canteen. Ideally a menu should offer students several items that remain the same, with variety provided by specials for sale only at certain times, or on certain days of the week. Seasonal fruit, whole or cut into appropriate sized pieces, should always be available.

Online resources

The Heart Foundation has a wide range of resources, tools and guidelines for writing healthy and varied school canteen menus.

For further support with school canteen menu development, you can contact a Heart Foundation Health Promotion Coordinator.

Fuelled4life provides a classification system which provides support for selecting the healthier options.

For evidence-based technical information and best practice recommendations (on nutritional food groups, serving sizes, New Zealand children’s diets and healthy options) see the Ministry of Health’s Food and Nutrition Guidelines.

Tasty canteen ideas

Mousetraps – melted cheese and Marmite.
Hot dishes – vegetable fried rice, spaghetti, lasagne, stuffed potatoes.
Burgers – lean meat patty, lettuce, cheese and tomato.
Filled rolls – with ham or chicken, cheese and salad.
Veggie soups – with toast.

Menu examples for school food programmes

This section recommends appropriate nutrient types and serving sizes for breakfasts and lunches. Breakfast, as we know, can be the most important meal of the day, so it is important to have filling and nutritious food so children get the best possible start.

A breakfast club will ideally provide one option from each of the following food groups:

  • Breads and cereals – porridge, Weetbix, natural muesli, wholegrain toast, crumpets.
  • Toppings – peanut butter, jam, honey, tomato, baked beans or spaghetti.
  • Fruit – any fruit fresh, frozen or tinned in natural juice.
  • Milk products – milk, yoghurt and low-fat cheese.

See the Heart Foundation for ideas around policy development and reviewing menus. The Counties-Manukau DHB also has some good sample menus in their guidelines. Below are some very basic menu ideas to give you an idea (serving sizes will differ depending on whether children are primary or secondary school aged):

Breakfast club ideas:

Primary School:

Porridge (½ - 1 cup cooked per child)

Banana (½ to 1 medium banana per child) 
Milk (200mL milk per child)

Secondary School:

Weetbix (2-3 biscuits per child) 
Tinned peaches in natural juice or pour off syrup (1/2 cup per child) 
Yoghurt (150g per child)

Lunch and snack ideas:

Schools are ideally placed to support parents by providing healthy lunchbox ideas. Send clear messages to students and parents to encourage them to bring healthy lunches, such as:

  •  Fresh fruit / fruit salad
  • Sandwiches – with ham, tomato, cheese, egg …
  • Raw vegetable sticks – carrot, celery, capsicum, or cucumber 
  • Popcorn – without caramel or icing sugar
  • Fruit yoghurt
  • Pikelets
  • Wraps / Pita Pockets / bread rolls – with sandwich fillings mentioned above
  • Left overs – fried rice, pasta or roast vegetables
  • Hard boiled eggs

Resources for managing food allergies