Article first appeared in the Portugal Resident.
As schools have started the new term, many parents and schools alike are faced with preparing daily snacks and lunches, or planning menus. As we begin to emerge from the worldwide pandemic, the importance of promoting healthy eating and the link to a healthy mind is at the forefront for all concerned.
From this September, the Portuguese government has taken the far-reaching step of banning the sale or provision of fast foods or products deemed ‘harmful to health’ in all Portuguese state schools.
The new legislation means that over 50 different food and drink products high in salt, sugar or calories are prohibited from being sold or served. Public schools are now required to offer “nutritionally balanced, healthy and safe meals” (Ministry of Education).
This is in direct response to the recognition of the growing obesity problem in under 18s in Portugal, which has risen to a staggering 29.6%, with 12% being declared clinically obese.
We know that children and teenagers require the appropriate foods to ensure their optimum growth and development. Ongoing research has also proven that what children eat not only affects their physical health, but also their mental health and ability to learn.
Research suggests that when children eat a healthy and nutritious diet, their mental health improves and, very importantly for learning, cognitive skills are noticeably enhanced.
Children and teenagers are able to concentrate for longer periods of time with improved memory skills when a balanced healthy diet is followed. As a result, academic performance is significantly improved.
In our role as parents and educators, we have a very important role to play in encouraging and promoting healthy eating habits. We all recognise that childhood and adolescence is the time to build and reinforce positive lifelong habits, especially healthy eating.
Schools have a considerable important role to play as most students consume at least 40% of their daily energy intake during school hours.
Schools really can have a positive influence. Schools can improve students’ learning outcomes and mental wellbeing by promoting healthy eating throughout the school environment.
At our school, since the day we opened, acknowledging the correlation between healthy eating and healthy minds, we have provided unlimited fresh fruit for all our students at no charge – a positive reinforcement of our commitment to the wellbeing of all of our students.
This year, our students will be taking this a step further by creating and making their own fruit and vegetable smoothies. Water is provided in every classroom. All students are encouraged to drink as often as they wish, and to refill their reusable bottles throughout the day.
It is vital that schools and parents alike practice what they preach. Simply sitting with students enjoying fruit breaks together, discussing the importance of eating a rainbow of fruit and vegetables and creating healthy eating displays are some of the ways to promote the right message. The possibilities and learning opportunities are endless.
Personally, I find it an absolute pleasure to be able to spend fruit breaks with our students, see their smiling faces, observe them trying a range of new fruits and to take part in the resulting engaging discussions.
Of course, time at school is only part of the day. Continuing the message at home is vitally important for parents to undertake. Simple and enjoyable activities such as encouraging your children to plant a vegetable garden, visiting a farmers’ market together to choose the daily or weekly fruit and vegetables, and encouraging our children to help prepare the evening meal with you are just a few ideas.
Ultimately, the age-old adage of “we are what we eat” has never been truer. Together we can ensure that all of our children adopt and maintain healthy life choices.
‘Every time we eat is an opportunity to nourish our minds and bodies’ – Anonymous