Finland isn’t one of the countries whose school lunch I explore in my book, What’s for Lunch?, but those Finns really know their way around the cafeteria. They’ve had a lot of practice. The first country in the world to offer school meals, they’ve been doing it since 1948. Today, packed lunches are banned and almost every school child in Finland eats a free school meal.
The government has created nutrition standards based on the elegant and easy-to-follow model of a dinner plate. Fresh and cooked vegetables must cover half of the plate; starches or grains (potatoes, rice, pasta, etc.) cover another quarter; and meat or ﬁsh, which is served at least once, preferably twice a week (beans or other veg protein is available for vegetarians), covers the remaining quarter of the plate. (Note to those creating byzantine nutrition standards for school lunch in the US and elsewhere: this is simple and it works!)
Water is always available, as is skim or semi-skim milk. There’s freshly baked bread to accompany the meal and berries or fruit for dessert. In some jurisdictions, the lunch menu is printed in the newspaper; parents can also access the information online.
Schools are encouraged to create a pleasant, unhurried atmosphere that promotes good manners and the pleasure of eating together.
It sounds so incredibly civilized—the polar opposite of the head-splittingly loud, scarf-back-your-food-as-quickly-as-possible lunch experience for so many Canadian kids. And according to The Wall Street Journal, Finnish children are some of the smartest kids in the world. There are lots of reasons, of course, they do so well on these international assessment tests but there’s no question there is a link between regular healthy eating and the ability to learn effectively.
No doubt Finland’s school meal program has its problems and challenges (I read, for instance, that Grade 7 students drink more sugary drinks than recommended—which sounds a lot like adolescents everywhere), but they are clearly doing a lot of things right. We could all learn from their success.