Healthy eating in schools: supplementary guidance

Additional guidance on diet and nutrition for children and young people with additional support needs.

Section 3
Positive culture, ethos and environment

Developing a positive lunchtime environment which supports healthy eating

The school culture and environment can have a significant impact on the wellbeing of everyone within the school. With regard to eating well, the dining room culture and environment can affect children, young people and staff's lunchtime experiences. Some children and young people need a calm and relaxed atmosphere in order to receive maximum benefit from mealtimes. For those who have difficulty with eating and drinking, this is even more important. Some children and young people have difficulty integrating sensory information and filtering out unimportant information. Over-stimulating them with too much sensory information such as noise, touch, visuals and smells, may compromise their eating and drinking skills by triggering abnormal movement patterns. A child displaying what is interpreted as negative behaviour at mealtimes may actually be expressing sensory overload.

Social aspects of mealtimes

The experiences of children and young people within the dining room go further than eating and should include the social interaction associated with meal times, and opportunities to develop a wide variety of skills. It is a rich learning environment, and some children and young people may have learning targets they need to carry out in the dining room, such as functional, movement or communication skills.

Allow them to sit together where possible, regardless of needs, whether they are eating a school meal, are fed non-orally or having a packed lunch. It is important to ensure children and young people can access all areas of the dining room, and that the heights of counters and the servery are appropriate.

Useful tips

  • Review the dining arrangements to make the environment more appropriate, encourage independence and improve communication.
  • Allow everybody enough time to eat and drink. Some children and young people with additional support needs may take longer to eat their lunch. They should be encouraged to take advantage of the added benefits of eating school lunches, such as social interaction.
  • Where necessary, food should be kept warm safely during mealtimes for those who eat and drink slowly.
  • Review the seating arrangements and involve children and young people in these discussions, where possible.
  • Consider whether the use of music would enhance the lunchtime experience.
  • Make the dining experience positive for everyone. Minimal and inexpensive changes to the environment can make a huge difference to children and young people. Some of the changes just require thought, empathy and the opportunity to view the dining room environment from a different perspective, in order that it will:
    • act as a stimulus to healthier food and drink being selected.
    • enable children and young people to choose food with minimum anxiety.
    • increase social interaction of children and young people.
    • lead to better behaviour during lunchtime.
    • generalise the skills they learn across a range of settings.

Supporting children to make choices at lunchtime

It is very important that children and young people are able to make choices at snack and meal-times. The power of positive and supportive relationships and the role of staff in encouraging healthy choices cannot be underestimated. Catering and support staff should be encouraged and given opportunities to work with children, young people and teaching staff to learn how to help them make these choices.

Clear, open and positive communication channels are vital for children and young people as the dining room can often be a confusing and overwhelming environment. To support their learning and understanding, many children and young people with additional support needs communicate and understand through a variety of communication systems. It is vital that all the relevant systems used in class are also used within the meal-time environment. These can include the use of signs, object and song signifiers, photographs, pictures, symbols and voice output communication aids. Skilful use of these communication systems will allow and encourage children and young people to become more independent and make mealtimes more positive. For example, children can indicate what they like or don't like; signal they want more; and show that they are finished. Communication mats are also an easy and valuable communication resource for mealtimes.

A short movie describing the development of an interactive menu board to help children and young people make choices at lunch time can be viewed or downloaded using the following link:

Supporting healthy eating messages across the school

In all schools, it is essential that there is a commitment to good nutrition and an awareness of the wider role of food and drink in contributing to wellbeing and quality of life. A consistent message about food and nutrition throughout the school day and curriculum
is vital.

The main purpose of learning within the health and wellbeing area of Curriculum for Excellence is to develop the knowledge and understanding, skills, capabilities and attitudes for mental, emotional, social and physical wellbeing now and in the future. In planning a curriculum for health and wellbeing, all staff across a school should organise learning to meet the needs of all children and young people. This should take account of those experiences and outcomes which are the responsibility of everyone within each learning community, creating a positive ethos and a climate of respect and trust. The experiences and outcomes offer staff flexibility to plan inputs using relevant learning contexts which are compatible with individual needs. Some examples include:

  • outdoor learning which provides many opportunities to broaden the curriculum including activities in school gardens and grounds, city farms, parks, woodlands and outdoor activity centres.
  • aspects of food and nutrition addressed through focused programmes as well as during practical food preparation activities, tuckshops, visits to shops and eating out.
  • using contexts explore safe behaviour both within and outwith the school, for example, safe use of kitchen equipment, road safety and safety in relationships.
  • creative involvement of external partners can make effective contributions to learning in health and wellbeing for example, parents, school nurses, and theatre groups.

For some children and young people, experiencing food as part of the curriculum can be beneficial in enhancing their knowledge and skills. Encountering new foods in the classroom allows children and young people to experiment with the sensory properties of food such as texture, smell and taste in a different environment, where the end objective is not always to eat it. Activities such as identification, tasting tasks or simple food preparation can be of particular benefit to children and young people as it gives them an opportunity to experience food in a repeated, structured session. Activities can involve practical cooking, allowing children and young people to acquire vital life skills and general skills across settings. Naturally, physical education and physical activity is also a hugely important aspect of a health and wellbeing programme, particularly for those who may be overweight.

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