In the UK, one in five primary school children start school overweight or obese and this increases to one in three by the time these children leave primary and start secondary school. By the time children reach adulthood, almost two thirds are overweight or obese.
This is important, for a number of different reasons, and something that needs to be tackled. Obesity can affect both children’s physical and mental health, increasing the risk of conditions, such as high blood pressure and breathing difficulties, as well as the potential for developing low self-esteem.
We also know that children who are obese are more likely to be obese as adults, and that obesity in adulthood raises the risk of developing a number of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
Research also shows that there is wide scale food insecurity for pupils in the UK, with 19 per cent of children under the age of 15 living with an adult who is moderately or severely food insecure, according to UNICEF (2017).
We also understand that there is a link between levels of deprivation and obesity, with obesity rates highest in the most deprived ten per cent of the population, approximately twice that of the least deprived ten per cent.
A number of factors contribute to this link. For those on the lowest incomes, the cost of a healthy diet can represent almost three quarters of their disposable income and less healthy foods tend to be cheaper.
The environment in more deprived areas can also mean higher exposure to fast food outlets and fewer opportunities to be active.
However, for all children, it is not just about cutting down on calories but also about the quality of the diet, especially for children who are growing and developing.
It is important, therefore, that children have a healthy, balanced diet at home, outside the home and at school.
And it is at school that teachers and school senior leadership teams can make a difference, whether it be through the curriculum, teaching cooking skills and the importance of healthy eating, or in ensuring the food children get at school is sufficient and healthy.
Ensuring that children get the food education that they need, can give them the knowledge and skills to be in charge of making healthier decisions in the future.
Creating a whole school approach to tackling healthy eating is key. The current obesity crisis is, at least in part, down to our obesogenic environment and to tackle this, changes must be made to create a healthier environment across many different sectors.
One of these examples is in school, where children spend a significant proportion of their lives and eat at least one, possibly more, meals a day. So, what can be done to ensure your school environment supports both health, wellbeing and learning about food?
In 2020, the British Nutrition Foundation launched the Characteristics of good practice in teaching food and nutrition education in primary schools document.
The publication sets out a series of characteristics of good practice with regard to teaching food in UK primary schools through a whole school perspective.
The characteristics were determined via consensus building exercises with primary school practitioners and initial teacher training providers across the UK. They have been designed so that they can be adopted as part of a good practice approach by all those that teach food in primary schools.
The publication, leading on from work on the Characteristics of good practice in teaching food and nutrition education in secondary schools published in 2019, looks to support UK primary schools to ensure good practice is achieved.
The guide centres on nine characteristics which make a useful starting place for schools to start:
- Developing professional competence
- Taking a whole school approach
- Teaching the curriculum
- Running practical food lessons
- Establishing good food hygiene and safety practices
- Developing food skills
- Exploring where food comes from
- Applying healthy eating
- Making informed choices
The guide builds on these tips, demonstrating how different people within the primary school set-up can work together to ensure each is met.
In the face of a growing obesity epidemic, educating children in the importance of eating healthily is essential. There are many ways you can ensure your class is a fun, vibrant and effective learning environment for children, to ensure they have the opportunity to develop the knowledge and cooking skills to make healthier choices.
There are a few examples given here, but you can learn more about good practice in primary schools by reading our free Characteristics of good practice in teaching food and nutrition education in primary schools document. Let’s all work together to ensure children have the best opportunity to live healthier lives.
Top tips for good practice
- Create a whole school approach! It is important that teaching of food is aligned with the whole school food approach and that food education is embedded in the health and wellbeing agenda of the whole school. This can be achieved through the development and implementation of policies, promotion and enforcement and ensuring that the food teaching reflects the curriculum.
- Build in progression. It is important that pupils have the opportunity to continually develop and build upon their food skills and knowledge, so they can prepare, cook and serve a range of dishes hygienically and safely. Children love improving their skills, so having the opportunity to make more complex dishes and learn more about healthy eating can be really motivating and rewarding.
- Give pupils the opportunity to cook! Let pupils try out new skills by preparing, cooking or assembling non-cook recipes at school. It is important that all practical food preparation and cooking lessons are delivered in a hygienic, safe and organised way.
- Put healthy eating knowledge into practice. Give pupils the opportunity to apply their healthy eating knowledge and their awareness of consumer preferences and the reasons for food and drink choices. You can integrate this into your schemes of work, or give pupils other opportunities to show what they have learnt in a cross-curricular way, such as talking about reasons for food choice in a Religious Studies class or writing about healthy eating in an English lesson.
- Act as a role model. Bring your enthusiasm and knowledge to the food room. It is important to be confident in the delivery of food lessons, so ensure you stay up-to-date with your professional development, and take an interest in developing your own knowledge and skills.
Alex White is a Nutrition Scientist for British Nutrition Foundation. Find out more at foodafactoflife.org.uk.