Time to show some love for school dinners – Rachel Pointer Tandex

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  Posted by: Dental Design      15th February 2019

When you look at your shop-bought sandwich, do you ever feel nostalgic for the lunchtime delights served up in your school canteen? School dinners, featuring glorious offerings such as ‘pizza’ (tomato sauce spread on a roll, topped with grated cheese), tepid mash scooped onto trays with an ice-cream scoop and stodgy pudding smothered in custard, have been upgraded since many of us were pupils. Responding to the need to help schools provide a healthy menu, so that children can enjoy sitting down and sharing a lunchtime meal with their friends and teachers, The School Food Standards became mandatory in all maintained schools and academies in 2015.[i]This followed a high-profile campaign to improve school meals from Jamie Oliver; the effectiveness of his involvement was a matter of debate for some, but in any case, things needed to change and in some areas of the UK they did. Many schools now offer delicious, nutritionally balanced lunches, cooked from fresh every day – as far from our own memories of school dinners as possible.

But we are a long way from school dinner Utopia. The Faculty of Dental Surgery of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow recently called for puddings to be taken off schools’ menus and opposes drinks labelled as ‘sugar free’, which could “normalise users to a very sweet taste”, being permitted in secondary schools.[ii],[iii]It says it wants the Scottish government to “take a bolder approach” to support improvements in oral health as well as reduce childhood obesity.

All over the UK, statistics for children’s dental health remain a cause for alarm. We know, because we both read and see the evidence for ourselves, that we mustdo more. As dental practitioners, we know that decay is preventable, yet it remains the number-one reason for child hospital admissions.[iv]We see children, along with their parents, every six months or so and we can advise, support and educate, but we have to find ways to make the preventive message stick in between appointments.

Good nutrition and healthy eating are fundamental to prevention, and for living a long and healthy life. When it comes to schools, they can be our biggest advocates and help us deliver our message, but the reality is that massive regional differences – in resources, social inequalities and ethnic diversity (which can affect the food they are able to offer) – exist. Currently, in state funded schools, all reception, Year 1 and Year 2 pupils receive a free school lunch. Children in Year 3 or above may still qualify for free school meals if their parents meet income/benefits-related criteria. At the beginning of 2018, 13.6% of pupils were eligible for and claiming free school meals, the lowest number since 2001.[v]

So, what about this bolder approach? To serve a good rotation of healthy meals, schools need to have the space to prepare and serve them and staff with the motivation to devise appealing menus. Access to a supply of fresh fruit and vegetables and quality meat and fish, is essential too. What are pupils eating if they don’t have a school dinner? Packed lunches have also come under scrutiny. Many schools have guidelines about what notto include – like crisps or wrapped chocolate bars – but coming up with interesting ideas that their child will eat is a source of stress for many parents, particularly if they are dashing out of the house to work every morning. Just as Jamie Oliver’s campaign received a backlash in some parts of the media (remember the petition to bring back Turkey Twizzlers after he called for them to be banned?) not every parent welcomes the idea of the lunchbox police. Do schools all feel the same about enforcing lunchbox inspections, to ensure that the contents are nutritious? Of course not.

Parents need to know how to make healthier choices and pass their skills and knowledge on to their children. This will enable them to support schools and healthcare practitioners who, in turn, will do all they can to support them. The fight against decay and childhood obesity needs a joined-up approach. Practices must talk to schools and parents; if we understand their reality and the limitations they face, we can all help each other better. Another key piece of the puzzle is good cleaning, which only trained dental practitioners can teach. Effective daily brushing to maintain oral health, using high-quality tools such as the TANDEX range; these are life-long lessons that should be taught early.

The school dinner is a wonderful thing – how many of us now take a proper lunch break, to enjoy our meal, unwind and socialise? Schools can promote healthy eating, but they also need an on-going commitment of support. A whole community effort is needed to bring schools, parents and practitioners together and give children the very best start.


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[i]School Food Standards. Link: http://www.schoolfoodplan.com/actions/school-food-standards/(accessed October 2018).

[ii]Dentists call for pudding and sweet soft drinks ban in schools. BBC News, 24 September 2018. Link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-45623746(accessed October 2018).

[iii]Dentists call time on sugar-free school drinks. The Times, 24 September 2018. Link: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/dentists-call-time-on-sugar-free-school-drinks-6mvmvkmrd(accessed October 2018).

[iv]More children having teeth out in hospital in England. BBC News, 13 January 2018. Link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-42662425(accessed October 2018).

[v]Department for Education. Schools, pupils and their characteristics: January 2018. Statistical Publication, published 28 June 2018. Link: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/schools-pupils-and-their-characteristics-january-2018(accessed October 2018).



Rachel Pointer qualified from Guys Hospital as a dental hygienist and began work in general dental practice in Hertfordshire.  After working as staff hygienist for Professor Naylor she was appointed tutor dental hygienist at Guys Hospital before working in Australia.  Rachel has experience in hospital, specialist periodontal practice and in the private sector as well as setting up a PDU within a cerebral palsy home in Essex.  Working for 10 years for the British Dental Hygienists Association as their information officer plus membership and careers co-ordinator she presently works at Addenbrookes Hospital and in general dental practice and a few year ago branched out to teach in a Montessori school setting.

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