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School canteen food: Friend or foe?


Would you choose a plate of fried chicken with thick cut fries or a bowl of brown rice with steamed chicken with broccoli for lunch? Many of us may be tempted to choose the former but adults who are more health conscious would choose the latter.

But, what about children and adolescents? Would they have chosen the right option if given this choice?

When children transition to adolescence, their eating habits may change progressively. Eating habits, whether it is healthy eating or not, usually will be difficult to alter in adulthood. Children and adolescents typically consume about one-third of their meals at school daily. School environment has a powerful influence on students’ food choices and eating behaviours. Schools today offer various food options and opportunities.

Based on our research, there were 17.8% and 12.5% of students that were overweight and obese, respectively, in selected schools in Kuala Lumpur. As for the school food environment, some school canteens are selling nutrient-poor and energy-dense foods like fried chicken, nuggets or fries, in which about 10% of students consume these foods daily. Even though the school canteen operators know that energy-dense foods are unhealthy, they still choose to sell them because they rake profit. Moreover, students are hardly aware of calories and nutrition that foods contain.

Our research team prepared healthy snack foods for kids using different methods like oven-bake, deep-frying and air-frying. Also, we formulated healthy snacks that can be sold in school canteens. We then provided these healthy snacks or kids party food for students to test their preferences. Our results showed that air-frying can reduce the fat content of snacks while maintaining its palatability.

Based on our observations, school canteen environment in Malaysia can be improved.

The availability of energy-dense foods triggers bad eating habits among students. On the other hand, if there is higher exposure to nutrient-dense, palatable and attractive foods in school canteens, it can encourage students to make healthy food choices.

School principals, teachers, canteen operators play important roles in improving school canteen foods. Besides enhancing school canteen menus, parents should continuously educate their children on the importance of healthy diet. Food education plays an integral part of the upbringing of a child.

Children need health food and breakfast for kids is an important meal for them to stay alert.

To know more about the school canteen food project, please contact Assistant Professor Dr. Tan Choon Hui, Rachel at tanch@ucsiuniversity.edu.my.

For more details on UCSI University postgraduate programme, please visit Office of Postgraduate Studies (OPS) at https://www.ucsiuniveristy.edu.my/postgraduate; or enquire via email sec_pg@ucsiuniversity.edu.my (Student Enrollment Centre).