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School catering: Lessons from the Jamie Oliver revolution

15 June 2006

The Jamie Oliver revolution on the nutrition and healthiness of school dinners has resulted in enthusiasm from just about everyone involved in education feeding - except for some of the customers.

To the dismay of those who manage and prepare school meals, there's evidence that uptake has fallen slightly in some instances where there has been a switch to a healthier menu. The suspicion is that while the new menus are nutritionally much better, schoolchildren don't always like what they're being offered.

The trap into which some school caterers have fallen has been to ditch completely the types of food which have been condemned as unhealthy in favour of what to many children are "new" foods cooked and presented in "new" ways.

Catering equipment manufacturers have responded by reassessing how existing equipment can cook and present healthier food in a way which children will accept. Aware of the need for new cooking ideas, manufacturers which sell into the education sector are highlighting ways in which existing equipment can meet the needs of the healthier school food lobby and provide food that children want to eat.

Reducing the fat content is one of the key targets, since school food has historically contained a high fried content. Frozen food cooked in a deep-fat fryer is quick to produce and easy to eat, and attempts at totally removing fried food from the weekly menu cycle has almost always resulted in children voting with their feet to eat elsewhere. For many secondary school pupils with access outside the gates at lunchtime, this often means the local chippy.

The dilemma of keeping chips at least occasionally on the menu yet presenting them in a healthier form has come through an unexpected development in the use of combi-ovens. While these are versatile - able to bake, steam, roast and grill - they have never been seen as being able to cope with fried food. That has changed, not through any differences in the way combi-ovens are made, but from manufacturers looking at the way frozen food such as chips and nuggets are manufactured.

Almost all frozen products intended for deep-frying are first par-fried before blast freezing. This process leaves a residue of fat on the surface of the chip or nugget. Subjecting the frozen food to a high blast of heat in a combi-oven achieves browning and crispness from using only the oil left from the par-frying, and not from immersion in hot fat.

Protein nuggets will crisp up in a combi-oven, but to achieve the best lower-fat chips it's better to use oven chips rather than frying chips. The way oven chips are produced is slightly different and they are a better finished product coming from an oven than oven-roasted frying chips.

Vitamin content
The next step by combi-oven manufacturers in making food healthier has been to encourage the steaming of vegetables rather than the traditional method of boiling them, sometimes excessively. With the combi-oven in a steaming mode, fresh vegetables such as carrots and broccoli can be cooked using the water content of the vegetable and the added steam. Vitamin content is not leeched out by boiling water and this has the bonus of retained colour and crispness. Vegetables can be cooked close to the point of service rather than mid-morning, and kept warm in holding cabinets.

If the school kitchen has to stick with deep-fat fryers, it's important to lower the fat content through frying and potentially harmful by-products of burnt oil by filtering the oil every day to remove burnt food droppings. Some fryers come with built-in filtration, or there are mobile filtration carts or there's the simple, but potentially hazardous, process of manual filtering using buckets and grease filters.

Those who sell food-preparation equipment have reported a big rise in sales to schools in the past 12 months, suggesting that schools are moving more towards fresh produce prepared and cooked on site instead of using pre-prepared and frozen food.

This is basic equipment such as potato peelers and vegetable processing machines. Potatoes are a staple of every school lunch menu and the economics of buying in pre-peeled potatoes in gas-flushed bags or dried and frozen potato compared with 25kg sacks of fresh potatoes are heavily stacked in favour of fresh. And that's before the added nutritional value of fresh potatoes goes into the equation.

Popular pasta Pasta is popular with young people, and as long as the cheese toppings and creamy sauces are kept under control, it's very nutritious, with a slow energy release for the afternoon teaching session. Pasta cooking stations in the dining hall are still at the trial stage for schools, but are well established in universities and staff restaurants. Systems vary but, typically, the pasta is precooked and chilled before service. Sauces are precooked and held in bains-marie. Additional vegetables and flavourings are held on the pasta station.

Pasta can be reheated in a pasta cooker or stir-fried in an induction wok. The sauce and toppings are added and typically a finished dish will be produced in less than two minutes. It's pure theatre, and the type of food presentation teenagers are used to in the high street.

Attractive presentation of healthier food is a big incentive for pupils to choose it. Traditionally, school dinners are offered to pupils cafeteria-style on a servery hatch looking on to the kitchen and served from bulk trays and dull aluminium serving pans. While the food might be better than it was, the presentation is not. Even pre-teen children are now used to smart and slick presentation of food from high-street chains.

Serving from bulk trays is a very practical way of operating a cafeteria-style food operation, but there are now some attractive serving and cooking dishes. Bold colours appear on ceramic dishes of all sizes, many of which are oven to table to give food that just-cooked taste and appearance. Similarly, dishes and bowls for cold foods such as salads are available in glass or coloured plastic. Giving salads eye-appeal on the counter is the first step to encouraging take-up.

Primary schools often have to serve the lunchtime meal in a multipurpose area - an activity room or assembly area using mobile serveries and airline-style multiportion food trays. Even for primary school children this is not a very exciting environment in which to eat.

Kitchen equipment manufacturers have addressed the constraints of space and budget by designing brightly coloured servery carts and service trays, often with amusing decals targeted at under-10s.

Encouraging healthy eating in schools is a joint effort by everyone involved, in which those who make the equipment which cooks and serves school food are playing a part.

For information on kitchen equipment see the CESA website at www.cesa.org.uk
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