There is now a multitude of scientific studies which demonstrate the link between food and mental and physical wellbeing.
As a society, our knowledge of nutrition has grown more sophisticated and we are beginning to understand the impact of complex nutrients on both physical and mental performance. According to a recent University of East Anglia study, nutritional intake was associated with mental wellbeing scores in children of all ages.
As one of the UK’s few remaining full-boarding schools, where students are provided with learning and activities seven days a week, Gordonstoun School takes its responsibility to provide healthy and tasty food very seriously.
Gordonstoun first put the latest scientific dietary knowledge into practice in 2018. Its “Active Revision” course each Easter offers a combination of “brain-boosting” foods rich in essential nutrients with exercise sessions to aid revision.
“As one of the UK’s last full-boarding schools, Gordonstoun School takes providing healthy and tasty food very seriously.”
The results proved spectacular, with all students on the course improving by at least one grade in their exams compared to their mocks, and 60 per cent improving by two grades. Lockdown provided the opportunity that the catering team needed to review this model and apply it to the menu all year round.
“We tried to take positives from Covid,” says catering manager Jamie Campbell. “When we came back last year, we thought, ‘What can we do with the menu?’ Covid was an opportunity to make big changes which tied in with the ethos of the school. As chefs, we are every bit as much a part of that ethos as the teachers, so we designed the Phased Learning Menu.”
The idea behind this menu was to match the refectory food more closely with the uniquely challenging curriculum at Gordonstoun School. The school is well known as a pioneer of character education and its curriculum includes sailing and expeditions in order to build skills for life such as teamwork, responsibility, compassion and resilience in the face of a challenge.
“The idea behind this menu was to match the refectory food more closely with Gordonstoun’s challenging curriculum.”
Weekday mornings now see a breakfast to boost concentration, memory and focus. Porridge comes with a variety of health-boosting options such as sunflower seeds, goji berries and cranberries. There is omega-rich smoked salmon teamed with poached eggs, homemade artisan bread and Hollandaise sauce, containing essential fatty acids to absorb vitamins A, D and E.
On Fridays and Saturdays, students are active in sports and clubs, therefore a new Carb and Protein bar offers chicken, fish, rice and wholegrain bread to boost carb and protein intake. Alongside this, there are nitrate-rich fresh vegetables to help oxygenate the blood (during exam periods the amount of fish and antioxidants on the menu is increased and during inter-house sporting competitions there is an increase in carbohydrate and low-fat meat or protein-rich alternatives).
“We did a lot of research,” adds Jamie. “We don’t claim that our breakfast, for example, is going to cure this or do that, but studies have shown that the ingredients in our breakfast wake you up better or release energy more slowly during the day and that benefits the students who are facing a packed day of lessons and activities.”
It took three to four months to develop, test and phase-in the menu which feeds more than five hundred students and up to three hundred staff. The result is a three-week plan which repeats over six to nine weeks before it changes and the whole pattern begins again. Students were integral to the process, providing what Jamie describes as “very honest” feedback. “This season we’re going to be back playing hockey matches again, so it’s very important for me to get the nutrients in,” says Year 13 student Keira, who likes the new food offer.
“It took months to develop, test and phase-in the menu.”
“We’ve noticed the changes in the menu, especially recently; there’s been a lot more rice and noodles incorporated into our diet, which is the carbohydrate we need to release energy slowly when we’re doing a prolonged activity.”
“The ambitious menu took hard work, dedication and financial investment,” explains the principal of Gordonstoun School, Lisa Kerr.
“We now invest 25 per cent more in nutritious ingredients. Due to Covid it’s hard to compare this year with other years, but we are already seeing the benefits in terms of improved focus in the classroom and more energy for activities. Above all, though, we are all enjoying the tasty new dishes on the menu!”
To the uninformed, the menu board might not look that unusual. A typical day could include roast chicken with a spicy crust, potato wedges and vegetables; or tacos; or roast aubergine for vegetarians.
However, look more closely and you will find that the chicken crust is made with quinoa and the vegetables are all colourful and fresh, having been sourced from within five miles of the school.
“We are already seeing the benefits in terms of improved focus in the classroom and more energy for activities.”
Potatoes are baked rather than fried and the taco wraps contain wholewheat flour. Salmon is even smoked in the school’s own smokehouse using wood chips from a windfall tree which once grew on campus.
According to Jamie Campbell, some of the new vegetarian options have also proved a surprise hit. “They’ll queue out of the door for our baked whole cauliflower steak,” he said, “and they also love our Quorn nuggets. Even the committed meat-eaters love these dishes..”
The most innovative aspect of the menu, though, is its close alignment to the curriculum. Chefs worked closely with the examination office to match meals to the exam schedule.
“The new, healthier menu has helped students to remain focused in the classroom and during assessments,” said deputy head curriculum, Danielle Cowan. “If you want to give yourself the best chance of success, do some research on brain-boosting foods, select the ones you enjoy and build them into your weekly meals. My top tip is that dark chocolate aids memory!”
“When students heard about the new menu, they thought that fish and chips and pizza would go, but they can have fun food, too.”
“We added brain-boosting foods such as spinach and red kale, and made sure they were available the day before the exam and on the day of the exam,” says Jamie. “But we never forget that young people want comfort food, too.
“When students heard about the new menu, they thought that fish and chips and pizza would be stripped out, but because they are here seven days a week they have to have fun food, too. So-called ‘junk food’ does provide some nutrition and certain fats. Those foods are still there, but perhaps more spaced out than before.”
It’s been a long but rewarding process for the refectory team at Gordonstoun School, who were recently finalists for a healthy eating award in the independent schools of the year 2021 awards.
This article first appeared in the latest print edition of Independent School Management Plus magazine, out now.