The science behind school diets

Our youngest usually comes home from school feeling hungry. This is mainly because she often skips the lunch that is served in school. Reason? She doesn’t like the food. Now there’s nothing really unusual about that; I have met very few people who have anything good to say about the food they ate when they were in school. For the most part, the food served in school has more to do with sustaining the high energy levels of growing children using anything that can be cooked quickly and easily for large numbers.

I remember my own high school days – the menu always contained more carbohydrates than protein or greens. Even the maize-and-beans mix, which we called murram, had way more maize (the very hard variety, not the ‘young’ or ‘green’ type most people use at home) than beans (which usually had added proteins in the form of weevils). The food was served by senior students, who sat at the head of the table and passed the full plates down to the juniors. It was easy to tell how popular a meal was by how much food the juniors were served – the more food on their plates, the less popular the dish, and we were not allowed to waste!

The most precious food item in the dining hall was bread. This was not sold in the tuck shop and was, therefore, quite rare. We got one thin slice in the morning and one thin slice in the evening. Bread was so valuable that it worked as well as hard cash. If, for instance, you wanted a dorm mate to scrub your section of the floor for you, you could promise her your dinnertime slice of bread; that was more than enough to seal the deal.

Despite the school’s best efforts to stuff us full of carbs, we were always hungry and looked forward to morning break time when a woman we named Mama D (the D was for doughnut) would park her car – which would be full of baked goodies – outside the dining hall. In no time she would be sold out, regardless of whether her wares were fresh, stale, or very stale!

Woe unto you, ever-hungry high school student, if you were broke or late at break time because it meant you would have to endure a grumbling stomach until lunchtime. After lunch we were allowed to go to the dorms, where people who has some food stashed from the last visiting day would fuel up so they could make it to supper time and the coveted slice of bread.

To the school’s credit, we also got fruits after lunch. Unfortunately, we were at an age where we did not appreciate the nutritional value of fruits. We were more interested in feeling full. I also know that there were schools that envied our varied diet – sometimes we got mashed potatoes and minced meat, rice and beans or beef stew or egg curry, while many of our peers in other schools had to contend with murram day in and day out. 

Back to our youngest coming home hungry every other day. Recently I decided to engage her on why she disliked the school food so much that she preferred to stay hungry. What was on the menu that was so bad anyway? As she started to list the ‘bad’ food, my eyes got bigger and bigger as my jaw dropped lower and lower. The things she listed were luxury items as far as I was concerned: Mashed potatoes, fish curry, some Chinese rendition of a chicken dish, a vegetable wrap... what??

When I listed the menu from my school days, it was her turn to open her eyes and drop her jaw. I think she was trying hard to imagine herself having no choice but to eat what was on offer because it was a boarding school, meaning there was no home fridge to go and raid later. By the time I was done describing in detail what our meals looked and tasted like, I think I had managed to shift her perspective quite a bit. Let’s see how it goes from now on. 

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