Food for thought

17/12/2014 - 11:00
Food and drink for children has taken centre stage in recent months and there are more changes on the horizon. Sheila Eggleston reports.

The spotlight on children’s menus has been brighter since last September, when free nutritious meals for infants were rolled out in schools thanks to the government’s new School Food Plan, which has allotted more than £2 billion to meet the costs of meals over the next two years.

In January 2015, new school food standards will also be compulsory for state-run schools in England, voluntary for existing academies, but required as part of funding agreements for any new academies set up since spring 2014.

However, the government claims that many existing academies have signed up to these standards and many academy caterers also hold the Food for Life Catering Mark, which guarantees compliance with them as well.

Additional funds have also been promised; Schools Minister David Laws has written to local authorities about more help for schools serving universal infant free school meals (UIFSM). The Department for Education is now making an additional £20 million of funding available from within the UIFSM budget, which is aimed at improving kitchens and dining facilities in schools.

According to the School Food Standards guidelines, a child’s healthy, balanced diet should consist of: plenty of fruit, vegetables and unrefined starchy food; some meat, poultry, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein; some milk and dairy food; and a small amount of food and drink high in fat, sugar and/or salt.

Under the new standards, soft drinks in schools must contain no more than 150ml of juice due to its sugar content, and the maximum size of juice drinks is 330ml. These may contain added vitamins and minerals, but must be at least 45% fruit and vegetable juice.

However, Pritchitts offers an alternative to these drinks. Simon Muschamp, head of marketing, says that its Viva flavoured milk and new Modern Milk for 16-year-olds and over combine nutrition and flavour, making them the “smart choice for cost sector caterers”.

“Two separate studies have also revealed the effectiveness of milk on physical and mental development,” he says. “The first, from Canada’s McMaster University, found that milk is a more effective way of countering dehydration than water because of the high-quality protein, carbohydrates, calcium and electrolytes it contains.

“The second, from the University of Maine in the US, found that those who regularly drink milk and consume dairy-based products do better in key tests of brain function.”

Food-wise, Mike Berthet, director of fish and seafood at M&J Seafood, says the Department of Health recommends eating at least two portions of fish each week, because fish is high in protein, low in fat and a rich source of omega 3.

“Fish could also be used as a way of bringing sustainability into the classroom via projects so that it forms part of the curriculum,” he adds. “For example, pupils could study a particular species and look at its evolution, habitat and life cycle.

“Children have little exposure to fish and do not have the same preconceptions as adults, so there is an opportunity for caterers to get them interested in eating underused species, such as whiting or pollock, which they will probably enjoy every bit as much as cod or haddock. If introduced early enough, this adventurous approach may well become one that they carry through into later life,” he says.

According to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), approximately a fifth of the UK’s primary schools have MSC certification, and they display the MSC ecolabel on menus to indicate that the products they serve are totally traceable.

“It is great that the standards recognise the value of sustainability in relation to nutrition in schools,” says Adele Fash from the MSC. “By incorporating the government buying standards, the guidelines recommend sourcing fish from verifiably sustainable sources, advocating the use of MSC-certified sustainable fish as an ideal way to achieve this.”

The MSC says caterers are likely to be more interested in using frozen fish portions, Ross MSC-certified Simply Fish, for example, which comprises Pacific cod, Alaskan pollock and Pacific salmon, hand-cut and frozen, and portioned for children.

Crown Foods says it is tempting youngsters to eat seafood with its extended Simply Fish range. The MSC-certified salmon goujons and fillets in vinegar-infused tempura batter have been introduced as oily fish options high in omega-3 and protein. This IQF range is available in 16, 60 and 90g portions, and caters for children’s meals as well as grab-and-go options.

“With more than eight million meals a year featuring our flavoured products, customers say that the familiar fish-and-chip-style flavour of our unique batter appeals to younger palates and helps tone down fish flavours,” says managing director John Pickett. “Because of this, we are able to encourage children to eat white and oily fish, which is great for them and reassuring for parents.”

Encouraging young diners to eat oily fish are its Suzy Salmon and Peter Pollock cartoon fish characters on packaging and social media pages, as well as appearing in giant 6ft-plus mascots at cost sector events to promote the range throughout the year.

Birds Eye Foodservice adds has carried out research on how caterers can cope with the changes in the education sector, and says many admit that it is not easy to get children to eat the recommended amounts of fish and seafood.

However, the research highlighted that while what kids like to eat hasn’t really changed, how traditional products are being presented has. For example, handheld food has made traditional products appealing. Younger diners love the interactive element of a fish-finger wrap, while older children are attracted by more-substantial dishes, such as a chunky fish-finger sub, explains business unit controller Gulam Uddin.

Grace Keenan, brand manager for Kerrymaid at Kerry Foodservice, says that school lunch should be an experience that every child wants to enjoy, and with the implementation of universal infant free school meals, primary schools need children to have access to freshly cooked tasty food.

The company’s products help caterers by offering lower-fat alternatives to dairy produce. To get children excited about desserts, ensure that the puddings served stand out and incorporate different flavours, she advises. “Classic homemade desserts like Bramley apple tart accompanied with ready-to-serve Kerrymaid custard are appealing choices and popular with school caterers,” she says.

David Edwards, head of out-of-home sales for tortilla specialist Mission Foodservice, believes that children’s palates are more attuned to global flavours. Youngsters therefore need to be provided with a menu that offers what they perceive to be grown-up choices.

“Many children want to experiment with ingredients and cuisine,” he explains. “For example, offering a small burrito packed with chicken, peppers and kidney beans is a great way to present a perfectly portioned option for children.

“We provide menu inspiration with recipes that bring the versatility of wraps to life. At this year’s LACA Main Event, we showcased just how easy it is for caterers to bring hot and cold dishes to school-compliant menus. Recipes included breakfast bran wraps, cheeseburger tortillas and fresh fruit burritos.”

Another meal suggestion, from Mark Yates, founding director of Empire Dogs, is US-style food such as hot dogs, which are popular with children. He recommends its hot dogs, made with Red Tractor-certified pork, beef and chicken, which contain less than 350 calories including the bun. The hot dogs also have less than 7% fat content and virtually no salt, making them school-compliant, he adds.

When catering for older students, however, it is essential to offer appealing lunch items that will keep them on site. “Older pupils will be interested by our extended range, which includes bratwurst, frankfurter, Cajun chicken, Chicago beef, Cumberland sausage and chorizo,” he explains.

Chicken is another popular item with kids, but Toni Koumi, operations manager for Love Joes, says that caterers are keen to ensure buy-in products are trustworthy. “The horsemeat scandal cast a shadow over the meat market, but overall, it has led to a closer inspection of the meat supply chain, and that can only be a good thing,” she comments.

Love Joes flags up its British Retail Consortium accreditation and its recent Food for Life certification as proof of its quality credentials. New to its range is Mexigo, which allows caterers to tap into the burgeoning Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisines, which account for 21.5% of sales in the world cuisines market. The Mexigo menu includes quesadilla, Mexican salsa burrito, fajitas, enchiladas and Tex-Mex burger.

Another recent addition to foodservice is Tilda’s frozen Tilda Kids Sunshine vegetable rice, which can be microwaved in a minute.

The 125g portions contain yellow basmati rice with a blend of hidden vegetable purée, and small pieces of carrot and sweetcorn – providing a healthy serving and one of the recommended 5-a-day.

Head of foodservice Mark Lyddy says the product was developed to help caterers fill a gap in the menu for a quick and easy-to-prepare child’s meal that appeals to parents, plus caterers can use the Tilda Kids Tilli the Elephant branding on menus to highlight the product.

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