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Findings Series 8 - Healthy eating in schools

Date: November 2007
Category: Briefing Paper
Author: GCPH

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This paper explores the impact of Glasgow City Council’s school-based provision of healthy food and drinks on pupils’ dietary preferences and practices within school and beyond the school gate.

The qualitative research project conducted by the Scottish Centre for Social Research (ScotCen) involved pupils, parents, school staff and selected individuals with a strategic remit, and aimed to: 

  • Examine the impact of school-based provision of healthy food and drink on pupils’ dietary preferences and practices in school.
  • Explore any impact of GCC’s approach on dietary preferences and practices in the home.
  • Identify facilitators and barriers to health eating.
  • Explore pupil and parental views in order to inform GCC’s future programmes. 


Some of the key findings of this paper are:

  • Primary pupils considered initiatives such as breakfast services and free fruit schemes in primary school successful.  They were also positive regarding current school lunch provision and supported the inclusion of healthy options although some felt that choice was limited for pupils in later sittings
  • Secondary pupils were more negative in their views and criticised the quality of school meals which they felt used cheap ingredients and were bland and unappetising. 
  • In terms of whether teachers should be present in the canteen at lunchtime to encourage pupils to try new options and act as role models, primary pupils thought this may encourage uptake, while secondary pupils thought the opposite. 
  • Secondary pupils and parents felt that pupils in the early secondary years relished the freedom of leaving should at lunchtime and exploring local shops etc but that this wore off over time.  Secondary pupils felt they should be allowed to leave school at lunchtime.  A minority of pupils argued there was a case for stopping secondary pupils from leaving should at lunchtime for safety reasons and this was echoed by parents from one primary and one secondary focus group.
  • Primary pupils felt that peer influence had little impact on their own dietary practices within school, whereas secondary pupils felt that friends would often follow the same pattern of behaviour at lunchtime.  Parental influence was not viewed as holding much sway among respondents, apart from when parents provided packed lunches.
  • Packed lunches were described by pupils and parents as full of fatty, sugary foods and fizzy drinks. 
  • Barriers to taking school meals cited by pupils were that the school canteen was off-putting and cramped.  Some examples were given of unhealthy food available near the school at low cost.  Some parents were also concerned regarding the availability of unhealthy food near schools and thought that vans selling unhealthy food outside schools should be banned.  
  • School-based provision of healthy food and drinks did seem to have some impact beyond the school gate with the majority of pupils and parents stating they were buying and eating more fruit and vegetables, drinking less sugary and fizzy drinks and more water, milk and fruit juice, as well at trying out new dishes.  There were mixed views however with some respondents stating food available within schools would not influence their attitudes or behaviours and they had not changed the type of food and drinks they consumed outside of school. 
  • Despite some reservations, respondents thought that GCC should continue the healthy eating programmes in schools.  Improving the quality of school meals had different meanings for primary and secondary pupils.  Primary pupils thought that unhealthy options should not be part of the school lunch menu at all while secondary pupils felt the inclusion of unhealthy options on the menu one or two days would improve the quality. 
  • In general, respondents felt GCC should be very careful before attempting to influence families more directly in their home.  However, some suggestions for promoting healthy eating outside school were made such as cookery workshops for parents and pupils, healthy packed lunch ideas for parents and more links between health eating and the taught curriculum to name but a few.