With the government’s hard line on reducing sugar consumption school desserts are in the spotlight, so it’s high time for a change.
No one is under any disillusion that desserts hold great power over pupils’ decision whether to have school dinners, particularly in primary schools. When my seven year old asks me what the ‘recipe’ is for any given day I always lead with the dessert. In my experience, unless the dessert is appealing then there’s little to no chance of securing a sale.
In a time where childhood obesity is rife there has been much discussion over school meal provision, including questing whether dessert is actually a necessary element. However, desserts present an opportunity to boost a child’s nutritional intake and encourage them to have a healthy meal at lunch time, so can they really be that bad?
With a few tweaks in terms of ingredients and portion size, schools can still offer a range of tempting and tasty desserts without fear that they are adding to the problem of overindulgence.
“With the growing obesity debate still dominating headlines – especially relating to children – and new government legislation forcing foodservice operators to be more responsible about their offering with regards to both sugar and salt, producers have really risen to the challenge to create items that are healthier,” explains Gordon Lauder, managing director of frozen food distributor Central Foods. “This has been done in various ways, perhaps as a result of adjusting the size of a product or the way the item is cooked or made, to ensure the product has less fat or fewer calories.”
According to a recent government report it has been recommended that no more than 5% of people’s calorie intake should come from ‘free sugars’ which is a 5% reduction from the previous recommendations. Therefore it’s more vital than ever that school caters look at their desserts to provide healthier sweet options.
“Desserts are still an important offering within the school lunchtime menu and are greatly looked forward to by school children,” says Karen Green, marketing manager at Aimia Foods. “Most importantly, they can also provide an excellent way to introduce additional calcium and vitamins into pupils’ diets.”
Providing a well-balanced dessert menu that complies with regulations and recommendations can prove to be a challenge for school catering teams, but there are many ways in which schools can offer quick, simple and healthy desserts with relative ease.
“With desserts typically perceived as an unhealthy treat, the focus on healthy eating and an increased interest in the provenance of ingredients is forcing a change in the way schools source, create and serve their desserts,” says Jonathan White, marketing manager at Mitchell and Cooper. “Students may still be willing to indulge themselves with an unhealthy dessert on occasion, but attitudes are quickly changing and it is vital for caterers to show their commitment to a healthier lifestyle by putting nutrition and freshly sourced ingredients at the forefront of their dessert offering.”
With the number of obese children on the rise fat has long been public enemy number one, but with increased concern over sugar consumption it’s now the sweet treats that are getting a grilling.
Sugar has been a major focus with the government resulting in it issuing new advice on sugar consumption. According to the government’s Evidence for Action paper, children and adolescents, on average, consume three times to recommended amount of sugar which is no more than 30g a day. This means the average young person is consuming the equivalent of a staggering 21 sugar cubes a day.
This is something that the Department for Education (DfE), supported by PHE have taken into consideration and will update the School Food Standards in light of the government’s latest dietary recommendations.
With a tenth of four to five year olds and almost a fifth of 10 to 11 year olds being obese this is an issue that schools have a duty to consider, particularly when it comes to desserts.
“Too many of our children are growing up obese, which can lead to serious health complications,” says Philip Dunne, minister of state for health. “We all have a responsibility to help people live healthier lives, but with a third of children leaving primary school obese we must take a comprehensive approach and now focus on excess calories.”
One school meal provider which has taken the sugar reduction project by the horns is Chartwells, the schools meals division of Compass, which has implemented changes to recipe configurations with the aim to achieve a half kilo reduction in sugar consumption for each child that eats across all 190 school days compared to the Spring 2015 menu.
Chartwell reported that over an eight month period it has successfully reduced the total sugar on menus by approximately 5% and intend to achieve a 20% reduction by 2020.
“We’re passionate about providing children with healthy and nutritious meals,” says Emma Hookham, pupil and parent engagement manager at Chartwells. “We are working closely with Merton’s Public Health Team to ensure our menus are nutritious and well balanced, and we are pleased with the results we have achieved so far.
“We are also working with a couple of schools individually to reduce the amount of sugary desserts available on their menus,” continues Hookham. “Merton Park Primary School, for example, have chosen to serve fresh fruit and yoghurt only on two days of the week, removing the number of occasions cake and biscuit-based desserts feature on their school menu. This is a great way for schools to help nudge pupils into choosing the healthier option, whilst encouraging them to achieve their 5-a-day too!”
Desserts are the most obvious place to start when it comes to reducing sugar levels in children’s foods and it is easier than some may think. With the School Food Standards set to reflect the government’s refreshed opinion on sugar suppliers will quickly adapt recipes and school caterers should follow suit.
With desserts fighting to maintain their position on school menus due to criticism over the nutritional benefits it’s more important than ever for caterers to justify their sweet menu by ensuring it’s packed with healthy options like, fruits, seeds and calcium.
“Desserts are a great way of topping up on the recommended five-a-day,” points out Colin Salmon, development chef – education at Brakes. “Fruit is easily incorporated into many dishes and wholemeal flour and oats can be added into traditional puddings to increase the fibre content. Serving a low fat custard or milk dessert also increases calcium and vitamin D in the diet.”
It’s a fine balancing act to create desserts that are not only healthy, but which appeal to pupils too. Caterers could look at already popular items and either source alternative products or seek ways in which to make them healthier. For example, there are jam doughnuts on the market which are baked instead of fried, making them approximately 28% lower in fat. They are also smaller which also reduces the calories, fat and sugar intake too.
“Following nutritional guidelines is an important part of school menu planning and one which requires food manufacturers to carefully consider the nutritional value of their products,” says Christina Veal, director at New Forest Ice Cream. “New Forest Ice Cream is committed to working closely with local education authorities to ensure we have products that are compliant with school meal regulations.”
Traditional versus modern
Today children’s palates are more sophisticated than previous generations thanks to exposure to global foods and eating out more. This has resulted in higher expectations and greater desire to try something new. However, this doesn’t mean that schools should relegate the classic puddings from yesteryear to the scrap heap. A good mix of both old and new dessert options should keep generation z satisfied and coming back for more.
“I feel with access to more sophisticated desserts and treats at home children actually enjoy traditional favourites as they are not exposed to them as they used to be,” says Anthony Oates, senior national accounts manager at Soreen.
Traditional desserts such as crumbles are a fantastic way to increase fruit, seeds and healthy grains into desserts. Sugar can be replaced with artificial sweeteners or honey, making them a tasty and healthy sweet treat.
“Caterers that offer something different on their dessert menu can therefore draw more interest from students,” says White. “Incorporating popular food trends or adding a unique touch to more traditional dishes can sway students when choosing whether or not to have a dessert.”
It’s important to offer a wide range of desserts to cater for a variety of different tastes which includes both hot and chilled desserts during the colder months. This will ensure there’s something for everybody.
“With Autumn just around the corner, hot desserts will certainly prove popular with pupils,” says Paul Siouville, Waring brand manager for Nisbets. “Nothing’s more tempting than the aroma of freshly made waffles, so for something a little different to the dessert choices that are usually found on school menus, these will certainly offer a welcome alternative.”
School caterers can either buy in waffles or invest in a specialised machine and make them in-house from scratch. The beauty of waffles is that they are quick to make as they cook in as little as two-three minutes and can be made in batches in advance and kept warm ready for lunch service. Schools could even cook them front of house to add theatre and visual appeal to lunch service. They’re also the perfect vehicle for fresh fruit, yoghurt and honey – to add to pupils’ nutritional intake.
“Sponge tray bakes and fruit crumbles continue to be firm favourites,” says Salmon. “Brownies are also popular and can be naturally sweetened by adding dates in order to make sure they are compliant.”
Hand held items are particularly in demand in secondary schools where pupils prefer to eat and run. There are a whole host of products on the market that make catering for this market a doddle.
“As well as traditional desserts, grab and go items such as cookies, doughnuts and muffins are extremely popular with young people and are more convenient for pupils who are in a rush,” points out Margarethe Schneeweis, category market leader – pastry mixes Europe, at CSM Bakery Solutions.
These types of products come in a variety of formats; from frozen cookie pucks to thaw and serve muffins. However, if school catering teams have the time and staff skill set to create their own, opting for muffin mixes and chilled cookie dough is a great solution. Not only can caterers control portion sizes but they can add their own healthy ingredients such as dried fruit to add natural sweetness and goodness.
“School caterers should ensure their dessert offering is vibrant, attractive and offers a range of different family favourites to win over the kids,” says Veal. “Ice cream is a favourite treat enjoyed by children all-year-round. It’s an easy and simple dessert to prepare, particularly when offered in pre-portioned tubs, yet provides maximum satisfaction.”
There are school compliant ice creams on the market in a wide variety of flavours and individual tubs mean that caterers have a quick and simple dessert with effective portion control so there’s no waste.
Desserts have always been part of school meal provision and with careful consideration to their nutritional make-up should remain an integral part of lunch time meals for years to come.
“Dessert can offer many nutritional benefits and a good source of sustainable energy if portions are controlled,” says Oates.
The debate shouldn’t be whether to have them or not as they are not only a clear draw for children, but provide an ideal opportunity to boost kids’ fruit, veg and calcium intake too. It’s more a case of ensuring that school catering teams review their dessert options and look at ways in which they can adapt them to considerably reduce the amount of sugar they contain.
School caterers need to take responsibility and move with the times, as they always have, and evolve recipes to ensure that they are not only delicious and appealing, but are healthier too. With all the advice and support that’s available this shouldn’t be a mammoth task and children will be all the better for it.
• Hand held treats – “How about freshly baked cookies sandwiched with ice cream or frozen yoghurt, homemade fruit lollies, homemade biscuits such as shortbread, or brownies cut into fingers?” suggests Salmon.
• Work with the seasons – “Take a traditional muffin and split the mixture to create rhubarb and ginger muffins – these will be cheaper to make during springtime as rhubarb is in season during the months of March to May,” says Aine Melichar, brand manager for Kerrymaid. “Sourcing seasonal ingredients is key to managing a budget, especially when making desserts.”
• Get creative – “Moulds are especially suited to school caterers looking to improve upon their ice cream offering,” says White. “Mini ice cream on a stick moulds provides an especially useful option for school caterers, allowing them to turn a homemade, delicious ice cream into fun treats that can be eaten on the move. School caterers can create unique flavour combinations, helping to elevate their ice cream based desserts and create a fun, unique option for students.”