Fond memories of school dinners in a time of 10 stone five-year-olds

by Scott Douglas

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

Celebrity chef Tom Kitchin encourages kid to eat healthy food.A version of this post first appeared in the Daily Record’s Edinburgh Now supplement

I can only remember one morbidly obese kid when I was a secondary school in the 1980s.

He was huge next to the normal skinny, skelfy Edinburgh teenagers and carried his bulk with a weary sense of resignation that seemed tinged with shame.

It couldn’t have been pleasant on any level. Other kids would actually stop and stare. Being that fat wasn’t just unusual at that time, it was outlandish.

Thirty years on and blobby schoolkids are an everyday sight. Puffy primary kids or swollen secondary pupils barely merit a second glance as they pour out of chippies, snack bars and sweet shops at lunch time.

To truly shock us now takes a case like that in Wales, where a five-year-old girl was removed from her family after her weight ballooned to 10 stone.

Like any big social issue there is no quick fix for our record levels of obesity. But I’m hardly going out on a limb by guessing that one of the important steps will be reconnecting kids with normal, healthy eating behaviours.

So I was heartened by the news that the number of youngsters enjoying school meals in Edinburgh has reached a five year high, with kids in the Capital eating their way through 2.55 million school meals in 2012-13.

Hollow legs

Across Edinburgh’s schools, that means 30% of our pupils enjoy a school dinner, while that figures rises to 37% in primary schools.

I suspect it would be higher if more adults didn’t take such an entrenched, deeply negative view of school dinners. In fact, I’ve never understood the sniffy attitude people take to institutional eating – from school meals to staff canteens.

Right through primary I loved school dinners, even the 70s staples of semolina with raisins through it, thick custard and unbreakable quadrangles of toffee tart.  I loved sitting down with other kids, waiting to find out what would be served, knowing we’d all be getting the same thing.

As a student in the late 80s I couldn’t be lured away from the college refectory at lunch time because quite simply it offered the best value fuel stop for someone with hollow legs.

After graduation I made it my mission in life to be best pals with the people who ran the catering in any of the places where I worked – and was a past master at persuading them to loosen the portion control when it came to my plate.

To this day I’m an enthusiastic omnivore and look back fondly on every one of those canteens, refectories and meal halls and the soups, stews and sweets they served up.

Yet the food snobbery around such places has always astonished me. Hardly anyone has a good word to say about them, which could leave me wondering if I have a blunted or stunted palate.

Nutritious

Granted, I’m not the most discerning foodie, but I have dined in Michelin starred venues, eaten on board the QE2 and sampled a good few quality restaurants.  Likewise I’ve had my fair share of overcooked stodge and tasteless, nutritionless slop, much of it ruined by my own fair hand.

So, I can say with confidence that most of what I’ve been served over the years in those canteens was perfectly tasty, honest-if-unassuming, usually nutritious and generally well-balanced meals.

I’d see the point of the criticism levelled at canteens if every one of those disdainful and dismissive non-diners was enjoying some Masterchef-style alternative at lunch time.

But at my first workplace I’d enjoy the canteen’s hearty soup, meat and two veg and a tasty dessert for a bargain couple of quid, while colleagues would look down their nose, and nip out to buy overpriced sandwiches.

These days a high point of visits to a client’s offices is the affordable staff restaurant which serves up fragrant Thai green curries, spicy Mexican wraps and tasty steak pies. Yet on my most recent visit a group of staff were bemoaning what was on offer and organising a run to a supermarket to buy plastic wrapped pasta pots and other convenience food instead.

Modern school and staff restaurants are a world away from those of my youth, often run by professional catering firms with a clear focus on nutrition and wider choice.

However, we can’t expect our kids to make healthier choices, if we keep feeding them the flawed notion that school meals are somehow sub standard.

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