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Transforming School Lunches to Be More Nutritionally Diverse

Trusforming School Lunch

The importance of diet diversity for children and adolescents is discussed in length in Encouraging Diet Diversity to Promote Healthy Eating Habits From a Young Age. In this article, the focus is on the nutritional side of diet diversity and how exposing children to a diverse range of foods from a young age benefits them physically by enabling them to develop and grow into healthy, young adults.

But diet diversity is about more than good nutrition. If a child is used to a limited diet, chances are greater that they won’t be interested in trying new foods and exploring different tastes. So, not only are they more likely to suffer from nutritional deficiencies due to not getting the required nutrients in, but they’ll also miss out on an exciting world of flavour due to a restricted diet.

Parents should introduce diet diversity in their children’s diets from a young age. This counts for at home and at school. Healthy but diverse school lunches will supply your child with the necessary nutrients to sustain their physical and mental needs throughout the school day, while at the same time encouraging them to explore different tastes and developing their own preferences.

What dietary diversity is all about

Dietary diversity is about following a diverse diet to ensure that your body gets all the nutrients it needs to function optimally. Ideally, this includes food items from all five food groups, i.e., fruits and vegetables, proteins, dairy products, fats and oils, and carbohydrates.

For children who are still growing and developing, nutritional requirements are even higher, making it so much more crucial that they follow a diverse diet. A healthy, nutritious diet offers countless benefits and is especially important in the scholastic context as our bodies need to be properly fed for our brains to work best.

Children’s cognitive function and academic performance can be enhanced through a proper diet. It also supports a robust immune system and reduces children’s risk of suffering from nutritional deficiencies and chronic diseases in the long run. On top of this, children need sufficient energy for long days filled with classes and extra mural activities such as extra classes, sports, culture activities, and more.

In summary, adequate nutrition during school-age years is critical for:

  • Supporting a suitable course of physical and cognitive development
  • Correcting any nutritional deficits and ‘catching up’ to prescribed course development
  • Addressing any nutritional issues to mitigate longer-term consequences

Transforming school lunches in South Africa

To lay the foundation for a healthy school lunch, it is essential to understand the components of a balanced diet first. A well-balanced diet should consist of appropriate portions of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and dairy or dairy alternatives on a daily basis to ensure that children receive the necessary nutrients.

In South Africa, most children and adolescents take their own lunch to school. In these households, the responsibility of ensuring a healthy, balanced lunch falls mainly on the parents. When it comes to the schools that have lunch programmes or are dependent on feeding schemes, however, there are many challenges when it comes to controlling the food items and portion sizes.

In these instances, it’s important that schools, community members and organisations come together to advocate the importance of nutritious meals for school-going children. Where funds are limited, alternative plans should be made to serve nutritious meals as far as possible. Protein alternatives such as beans, lentils and soya can replace meats to save money, for example. Pulses and legumes are not only nutritious but affordable and versatile too. They can be used to make all kinds of wholesome yet simple dishes that work for children’s palates, such as soups, pasta bakes, stews, and more.

Schools should also be encouraged to plant and sustain their own vegetable gardens. Carrots, spinach and tomatoes are some of the easier options to grow successfully. The produce can then be used to enrich meals being served at the school with the addition of more fresh vegetables. At the same time, children can be taught how to plant vegetables and take care of them until they’re ready for harvest. In the same breath, fresh herbs such as rocket, basil, and thyme can also be grown to add both flavour and nutritional value to school meals.

Knorr, a respected brand in the South African food industry, has partnered with the Department of Basic Education to maximise the consumption of more diverse, plant-based meals made from locally sourced products and decrease food wastage in the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP). They’ve found that understanding a country's dietary preferences and culture is necessary to create a nutritionally dense menu that meets the objectives of school feeding programmes. Their aims include improving staff members’ cooking skills and enhancing meals with Knorr’s diverse range of seasonings and flavour enhancers to make them more flavourful. It’s believed that this will help to reduce food wastage too.

DIY lunchbox inspiration

For the parents responsible for packing their children’s school lunches every day, it can become quite mundane and even difficult trying to balance nutrition and flavour. It’s best to keep it simple but that doesn’t mean it can’t be exciting and healthy at the same time!

Think outside the (lunch) box and go beyond the traditional sandwich with colourful wraps or burgers, veggie-packed pasta salads, meat-filled jaffles or wholesome leftovers. For snacks, try pairing crunchy vegetables or rice cakes with hummus or tzatziki, yoghurt tubs, biltong and nuts, or fruit kebabs for a vitamin-rich, nutritious treat. These serve as a good start to expose your children to diverse nutrients, flavours and textures.

Have a look at some exciting yet healthy lunchbox recipes below for additional inspiration. Best of all, they’re also quick and easy to prepare!

Prioritising diet diversity in your home and carrying its value across to your children is a powerful way to support their health and wellbeing in the long term. Through nutritional education, children are empowered to make informed choices about their own diet so you’re doing your part to set them up for a healthy, nutritious future.


Why is diet diversity important for growing minds and bodies?

Diet diversity ensures that children receive the nutrients necessary for their growth, development, and overall wellbeing.

Can diet diversity help prevent nutrient deficiencies in children?

Absolutely. By incorporating a variety of foods, children are more likely to obtain a diverse array of nutrients, reducing the risk of nutrient deficiencies and associated health problems.

How does diet diversity contribute to overall health in children?

Diet diversity supports their growth, development, and immune function. It reduces the risk of chronic diseases, such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, and promotes a balanced microbiome, essential for digestive health.

What are some practical ways to incorporate diversity into children's diets?

Encourage children to try new foods by exploring different recipes and cuisines. Introduce them to a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins so they can explore their own preferences. Also try making meals more exciting, by packing fun lunchboxes for school.

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