Planning the menu in conformance with ‘traffic light’ principles

The ‘traffic light’ system adopted by government school canteens across Australia has not only been designed to provide guidelines as to which foods to favour on the menu – it’s also a way of using school canteens to set a good example in promoting healthier eating in the wider community.

The aim is to ensure that your canteen is offering predominantly ‘green’ foods, with the occasional ‘amber’ ones, and ‘red’ foods only only very rarely. For example, according to the NSW Fresh Tastes canteen strategy, red foods are only allowed twice per year as part of special events.

While the guidelines, and the categorisation of foods into green, amber and red vary from state to state, the overall focus for all canteens remains the same – to choose your menu items in accordance with the traffic light system.

Using this approach should make it easier to identify appropriate choices for different meals. For example, good breakfast options include fresh fruit, wholemeal bread and crumpets, whole grain fruit muffins and so on – even wholegrain cereals such as wheat-based biscuits, porridge or muesli (untoasted, as the toasted variety adds considerable fat).

When you’re serving main meals, meat is often a key ingredient – so choose leaner cuts to ensure healthier choices that meet the traffic light recommendations. Look for meat that doesn’t have a large amount of visible fat – and trim what fat you can see prior to cooking. If using processed meats like sausages and frankfurts, look for leaner choices by checking the ingredients listing. Reduced fat sausages and franks are available, but even then these will likely fall into the ‘amber’ rather than ‘green’ category, restricting their use to ‘occasional’ as opposed to ‘everyday’. Always check the nutritional criteria with your traffic light guidelines.

It’s also possible to ‘trick up’ your basic green food choices (primarily fruit, vegetables and grains) to make them more appetising to hungry students. Items like barbecued corn cobs or barbecued vegie skewers are proving popular at many canteens – and you don’t even need to use butter or margarine.

Lean pieces of fish are also a good choice – they can be dipped in flour before being lightly grilled and served within a wholemeal wrap with salad and a squeeze of lemon, a quick and easy choice which is easy for the kids to carry off and enjoy.

When it comes to drinks, many canteen and school staff alike are justifiably wary of high-sugar soft drinks. Instead you could look at offering smoothies with reduced fat or skim milk and fresh fruit. Bananas and fresh berries are popular choices here, but you can use any fruit which pulps easily to add extra flavour – mix and match to come up with a flavour profile which the kids like.

For snack items, look at wholemeal or fruit scones, along with healthier muffins, crumpets or pancakes topped with fresh fruit and yoghurt. Other popular choices include pizzas – top a nine inch base with fresh vegies and fruit or a traditional favourite recipe like ham and pineapple.

You can also experiment with alternatives to standard bread, such as ciabatta, panini and brioche – these are popular at cafes right now, so why not try them on the canteen menu?

And of course let’s not forget salads – which are easy to keep ‘green’ as long as you use lemon juice and vinegar in place of oil as a dressing, or choose one of the low-fat dressings available. If adding meats, go for leaner options like skinless chicken or ham – avoid salamis and devon which are higher in salt and saturated fat. Eggs provide an alternative source of protein to meat and are an ideal choice to add flavour and colour to your salad.