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Food fight

Nick Clegg is spot on over free school meals

Is that all you’re having for lunch Miriam? David Cheskin/PA

Well done Nick! Free school meals for infant school children may cost the government our well earned cash but this initiative could bring so many more benefits than just healthier lunches.

There are three key steps to getting children to eat well and without knowing it Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has managed all of them.

Step one: control their environment

Japanese children eat fish and rice, Chinese children eat noodles and British children eat pizza and chips. This is not because of some culturally specific taste buds or hunger gene but because this is what they are used to.

If we are surrounded by easily accessible, cheap, high fat, fast food which requires no effort to eat, we eat it. But if healthy food is there then this is what we eat. So controlling our environment is the easiest way to control our diets.

And children, unlike adults, are also much easier to control. Parents, schools and teachers hold the budget, drive the car, do the shopping and prepare the food. By taking control of children’s environments we can make them eat what we want them to eat without them suspecting anything. And free school meals are a great first step - as long as the food is healthy and children are given, rather than offered, it as a choice.

Step two: be a good role model

Whether we like it or not, if our parents are fat the chances are we will be fat too and in the end we mostly end up eating the same diets we ate at home. We learn what we like from watching others and if those around us are eating a diet high in fat and salt and low in fruit and vegetables then this is what we will learn think of as “nice food”.

Free school meals offer the perfect opportunity to make good role models of everyone. Teachers can sit with the children and eat the same foods, picky children can be sat next to not so picky ones and good eating habits can be rewarded without a fuss.

Children may announce random likes and dislikes for food, “I don’t like peas” they say, but if they are given them while sitting next to their friends they soon eat what they see others eating.

Step three: saying the right things

We all have voices in our heads telling us who we are and how we behave. Some of these are nice voices: “You are funny”, “good with people” or “clever”. And some are not so nice: “You’re useless”, “you’ll never get anywhere” or “mean”. And often we have voices relating to food and body shape: “I am greedy”, “you eat like a horse”, “I don’t like trying new foods” or “pig”.

These voices come from our childhoods and the people around us and massively influence how we see ourselves, how we treat others and how we behave. Free lunches for all, offer schools the chance to place healthy voices in the heads of their children.

Chocolate, sweets or puddings shouldn’t be called “a treat”, “nice”, “special” and given with the statement “aren’t you lucky - you must have been good”. Children shouldn’t be told “eat your vegetables and you can have pudding” or “sit properly and you can have something nice to eat” and broccoli or beans shouldn’t be placed on a plate saying “eat these, they are good for you”.

All of these will end up as internal voices and the future adults will have no idea why they reach for chocolate when they need cheering up or see eating vegetables as a chore. Saying “we have spaghetti bolognese today, it’s one of my favourites!”, “these beans are really juicy”, “I think I’ll have more cauliflower” or “you are so good at trying new foods” can help children reframe the way they think about food and develop a healthier approach to eating that will stay with them forever.

So this simple intervention announced by Clegg and to be launched next September is a lot more complex than it looks at first glance - and potentially very effective.

Children need to develop good habits from an early age and free school meals for all offer the perfect chance to control their environment, offer good role models and put positive voices into their heads. And hopefully they will grow up making better choices about food without ever quite knowing quite why.

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