The healthy way to canteen

A snack or lunch order from the canteen will probably rate as a highlight of school for most Australian kids. Many parents too will have fond memories of their favourite school canteen moments. Days of paper bags filled with delicious sandwiches, dripping icy poles on hot summer mornings and jostling in the queues trying to beat the others to reach the front.

Australian school canteens are a key fixture for many students, providing a lunchtime treat or mid-morning snack that they look forward to once a week, or perhaps a few times during the term. The canteen is also beneficial for busy parents, providing a respite from the ground hog of preparing daily lunches and snacks.

However, today's school canteens face many 21st century challenges that were not around in the canteens of yester-year. From managing allergies to catering to increasing prevalent diet trends such as veganism and dealing with "the war on junk food", it is often a juggling act to ensure that the canteen caters to a broad clientele, offers foods that kids will enjoy and also meets the nutrition requirements of growing children.

Whilst the old adage that "a healthy body goes hand-in-hand with a healthy mind" is certainly true, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the body should only be fed raw carrot sticks and fresh fruit. There is still the need to indulge in less healthy foods from time to time. For this is what childhood memories are made of. When you think back to your school canteen days, it is unlikely the sliced cucumber or whole banana pops into your mind, but more likely the bag of lollies or the ice cream sandwich that you enjoyed with your best friend whilst sitting under a tree in the playground.

There are many ways that children can enjoy all foods from the school canteen and eat a balanced diet that includes a variety of different foods from the Australian Dietary Guidelines. Here are our tips to help you and your kids partake in the full offering of your school canteen menu, and at the same time encourage healthy eating habits for the whole family.

  1. Follow the 80:20 rule

    Just like with most things in life, it’s all about balance and trying to eat healthily 80% of the time, with 20% allowed for treats and indulgent foods. Plan out the week or term’s canteen order with your child and set an agreement for days when treat foods are allowed. This might be every Friday or the last order for the term. Have a strategy in place where most canteen orders include healthy foods and your child will know at the start of the week or term when the "treat" days are coming up, which will get them excited knowing there is something yummy on the way.

  2. The ying and the yang

    On a day when the canteen lunch order is a less healthy item (e.g. hotdog), balance the lunch box by including healthy morning and afternoon snacks such as fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grain crackers, popcorn, yoghurt or cheese sticks. In the same way, if it’s school canteen snacks that are likely to be chips, cookies or juice, then include a wholesome lunch item such as a wholegrain roll with a protein filling and assorted vegetables. This way you can balance the types of food eaten during the school day with both nutritious and less healthy choices.

  3. Canteen food adventure

    Encourage your child to try out new seasonal healthy menu items. On a day when you order a new item, pack extra healthy snacks in case they don’t fancy what they try. Trying new foods is an important skill for children to learn how to become competent eaters for life and the school canteen provides a great opportunity for food adventures.

  4. Go for green

    The National Healthy School Canteen Guidelines offers a variety of resources to help school canteens offer mostly "green" everyday foods and less "red" occasional foods. There are many factors that need to be considered when school canteens create menus, such as types of foods available to order, on-site cooking facilities, etc. and it can be challenging to create the perfect healthy menu. Discuss with your parent committee how you could get involved to help increase the types of healthy foods on offer.

  5. Focus on other meals and snacks

    Don’t stress too much if your canteen offers limited healthy choices, as you have more control over what is on offer for meals and snacks before and after school, which should include a variety of nutritious foods from the Australian Dietary Guidelines. It’s ok to cut yourself some slack and not get too worried if your child is eating less than desirable foods from the canteen. It’s more important to look at the overall diet in a broad context and what is being eaten over a full week, rather than a single meal.

  6. Peruse the menu together

    Ask your school to send out the new menu each term (if it changes) and spend some time with your child going through it together. Besides suggesting new foods that they may wish to try, you could also have a go at making some of the canteen menu foods at home for the whole family to try on weekends. If they decide they like it, this may encourage them to give it a go at school.

  7. Dinner and discourse

    When the family is sitting around the dinner table at the end of the day, include the school canteen as a topic. Perhaps your child may wish to share what they did or did not like about their school canteen order and what they are hoping to order next time. It can be helpful to also find out how they felt after eating certain foods; perhaps a highly processed white roll with a sausage did not keep them full for very long. These discussions can help children to understand the benefits of choosing a more nutritious lunch choice such as a whole grain sandwich with vegetables and protein that will keep them fuller for longer, and keep blood sugar levels more stable.

Whatever you and your child choose from the canteen, the most important aspect is ensuring they have positive eating experiences that will build a bank of long-lasting happy school food memories.

This article has been written by the team of Accredited Practising Dietitians at


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