The Importance of a Healthy School Canteen

School girls and a teacher talking together at school

This latest blog was written by our friends at the Healthy Kids Association. It explores the NSW Healthy School Canteen Strategy and the positive lessons about health we are aiming to impart on our kids. If you would like to learn more about healthy school canteens you can also check out our PV chat with Amy Wakem from the Healthy Eating Advisory Service 

As adults, we know that chips and pizza are not the best things to eat every day. Like everything else, these items are best when enjoyed in a balance with fruits and vegetables, wholegrains and legumes. These healthier options are the types of foods which should take priority, especially for our growing kids. They keep us full, prevent afternoon energy slumps and support healthy brain function, allowing us to take on all that our day may throw at us!

It’s important for kids to know that what we choose to fuel our bodies with is what determines our ability to run faster, jump higher and concentrate harder.

In the classroom, kids are taught about food groups and the importance of eating 5 serves of veg a day, but if the food marketing and meals made available to them outside of the classroom are not reflecting these lessons, the learning is meaningless. It is estimated that the foods consumed during school hours make up close to 40% of a child’s daily energy intake[1]. Additionally, it is recognised that dietary habits, preferences and behaviours are established in early childhood. Therefore, it is essential that the foods which are made available to children at their school canteen enable the healthy eating advice they learn in the classroom to be put into practice.

Canteens aren’t expected to be perfect. In NSW, the mandatory NSW Healthy School Canteen Strategy (the Strategy) assists schools in supporting student health by increasing the availability of healthy food and drinks in their canteens.

It is mandatory for all NSW Government schools with a canteen to meet the requirements of the Strategy by adhering to the Food and Drink Criteria, meaning:

  • Sugar-sweetened drinks are not for sale in the canteen or vending machines
  • Everyday food and drinks make up 75% of the canteen menu, with Occasional food and drinks accounting for no more than 25%
  • Health Star Rating (HSR)of ≥ 3.5 stars is required on all packaged Occasional foods and drinks (except diet drinks) and Everyday breakfasts
  • Portion limits are applied to all Occasional foods and drinks, for Everyday hot foods, ≥ 99% juices and flavoured milk [2]
  • Only Everyday foods and drinks should be marketed and promoted in the canteen

Everyday foods are the nutritious foods which provide healthy sources of energy for our kids. These are drawn from the five food groups, encompassing meals like your favourite chicken salad sandwiches, egg fried rice, yoghurt and fruit, tofu sushi rolls and the like. Conversely, Occasional foods are the ones we’d prefer our children to not be eating every lunch. These are the foods which are higher in energy, saturated fat, sugars and/or salt – often resulting in little nutritional value. Here we see cakes, processed meats, commercial pizza – you get the picture!

If kids are being taught about the benefits of fruits, vegetables and wholegrains and then seeing this mirrored in the options they can order for lunch, they will be forming a healthier approach to eating which will carry through to their adulthood. We all want what’s best for our kids and the NSW Healthy School Canteen Strategy allows this foresight to be maintained in and out of the classroom.

Healthy Kids Association’s team of experienced dietitians and nutritionists have been working alongside schools to improve their canteen menus. Since 2018, 339 NSW Government High Schools have been supported in meeting the criteria of the Strategy. But there is always more work to be done, Healthy Kids Association needs parent support to create change in all schools.

If you would like to see more healthy options offered and promoted, then you can advocate for these changes at your school by using the advice provided in Parents’ Voice’s 2019 ChangeMakers Program. Email the Parents’ Voice team at to gain access today.

If this post has piqued your interest and you would like to learn more about Healthy Kids Association, don’t hesitate to call 1300 724 850 or email


[1] Hardy.L, Foley. B, Partridge. S, Kite. J, Bauman. A, Chau. J, Mihrshahi. S. (2018). Frequent lunch purchases from NSW school canteens: a potential marker for children’s eating habits?. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, vol.42, no. 4. Available from:

[2] NSW Health. (2020). The NSW Healthy School Canteen Strategy: Food and Drink Criteria. Available from:

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