Children eat more healthily when offered a healthy lunch at school

Children eat more vegetables and whole-grain or brown bread, and consume fewer sugary drinks when they are offered lunch at school. This is the finding of the 'Healthy School Lunch' project carried out by Wageningen University & Research and VU Amsterdam. In the project, children in the upper years of three primary school (in Amsterdam, Lunteren and Vlaardingen) were offered a healthy lunch for a period of six months. The complete results of the study were presented today during the online final symposium for this project.

09/24/2020 | 3:19 PM

The two universities have been conducting research with various partners into providing a healthy school lunch for schoolchildren. The central research question was: ‘Do children eat more healthily if they are offered lunch at school?’. At lunchtime, the children were able to choose from wholemeal bread, healthy fillings, vegetables, water, milk and buttermilk. Every day they were also given something extra, such as soup, salad, an egg or fruit*.

Children began to eat more healthily at lunch times
Compared with the packed lunches brought from home, many more children ate vegetables at lunchtime (50% with their school lunch, compared to 7% in their packed lunch from home). More children also ate wholemeal bread and brown bread (85% versus 52%) and drank water or milk (75% versus 44%), and fewer children drank sugary drinks (4% versus 28%).

Girl in Year 8 who took part in the study: ‘I always used to bring white bread to school, but now we eat brown bread at school.’

Healthy school lunches proved popular
Children, teachers and parents all viewed the school lunches positively, even though they were also happy with the packed lunches brought from home. A large majority of the students indicated that they wanted to continue eating the school lunch permanently. The positive aspects mentioned were that every child gets the same at school lunch, children get to know new foods and they enjoyed eating together with their classmates. A less positive point was that it is more time-consuming for teachers, because offering the children a healthy school lunch takes more time than the normal lunch.

Improving children's diets
Children in the Netherlands do not eat enough vegetables, fruit and wholemeal bread and they consume too many sugary drinks. There are also major differences in the composition and quality of the packed lunches brought to school by children, and between schools. Because every child in the Netherlands goes to primary school, a healthy school lunch could significantly improve the diet of children in the Netherlands. The results of this study could serve as a guideline for the introduction of healthy school lunches in Dutch primary schools, which could help 1.4 million children to learn to eat more healthily. The results are currently being combined with the results of the ‘Healthy Primary School of the Future’ project and incorporated into a report that will be presented to the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport.

Professor of Nutrition and Health, Jaap Seidell: ‘By offering a healthy school lunch, we can enable every child to eat a healthy lunch with enough vegetables, boosting the overall daily consumption of vegetables by children.’

Participation in symposium
During the online symposium entitled A Healthy School Lunch in Practice held on 24 September, the results of this study into the implementation, composition and effects of a healthy school lunch at three primary schools in the Netherlands, and support for it, were presented. The symposium included an interactive section, in which the participants had the chance to discuss the results, their significance and how they could be used in practice.

For more information on the study, see:

*The lunches met the Goede Voeding (Good Nutrition) guidelines