Although the previous standards, introduced between 2006 and 2009, did much to improve school food, they were complicated and expensive to enforce. Cooks had to use a special computer program to analyse the nutritional content of every menu. Often, they ended up following three-week menu plans sent out by centralised catering teams who would do the analysis for them. This meant they couldn't be as flexible or creative as many would like.
In trials, the new standards proved extremely popular with school cooks, 90% of whom said they were easier to implement than the old standards. They also proved just as effective at delivering the energy and nutrients that growing children need. In fact, those secondary schools that trialled the new standards reported an increase in the consumption of vegetables, leading to higher fibre, folate, vitamin A and vitamin C intake.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: "Every mum and dad knows that if you want your child to do well at school, and particularly to concentrate well in the classroom in the afternoon, a healthy meal at lunchtime is vital. If you speak to heads, teachers and cooks about the school meals they provide, they want to be given a little bit more freedom to make their own choices. The revised school food standards will allow schools to be more creative in their menus. They are easier for schools to understand and crucially they will continue to restrict unhealthy foods to ensure our children eat well."
The new standards include:
- One or more portions of vegetables or salad as an accompaniment every day
- At least three different fruits, and three different vegetables each week
- An emphasis on wholegrain foods in place of refined carbohydrates
- An emphasis on making water the drink of choice
- Limiting fruit juice portions to 150mls
- Restricting the amount of added sugars or honey in other drinks to five percent
- No more than two portions a week of food that has been deep-fried, batter-coated, or breadcrumb-coated.
- No more than two portions of food which include pastry each week.
Education Secretary Michael Gove said: "These new food standards will ensure all children are able to eat healthy, nutritious meals at school. We now have a clear and concise set of food standards which are easier for cooks to follow and less expensive to enforce. Crucially we have achieved this without any compromise on quality or nutrition. There has been a great deal of progress in providing healthy school meals in recent years and these new standards will help deliver further improvements."
Henry Dimbleby, co-author with John Vincent of The School Food Plan, said: "The previous standards did a lot of good in removing the worst foods from children's diets. But when we were writing the School Food plan we met lots of wonderful cooks who felt restricted by them. There was a very talented Asian cook, for example, who was exasperated at having to follow the council's three week menu plan of shepherd's pie and fish and chips, when her pupils - most of whom were also Asian - would have much preferred naan bread and a curry. Other cooks complained that having to plan menus so far in advance meant they couldn't make the most of cheap, high quality, seasonal produce. These standards will preserve the nutritional gains that have already been made in school food, while allowing greater flexibility."
Susan Jebb, Professor of Diet and Population Health, University of Oxford said: "We know that children are continuing to eat too much saturated fat, sugar and salt. It is vital that the food children are offered in schools is nutritious and helps them to learn about the basics of a healthy diet. The pilots we ran were very encouraging and clearly enabled cooks to develop nutritionally balanced menus. We saw a real boost in the variety of vegetables offered, helping to increase intakes of fibre and essential nutrients. The new standards and supporting guidance include clear information on appropriate portion sizes to help achieve similar results and promote good practice across all schools."