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Chef Jamie Oliver Makes Over School Lunches

In an effort to reduce obesity among kids, this celebrity chef has come up with lots of healthy lunch ideas.
By Lauren Paige Kennedy
WebMD Magazine - Feature

Anglophiles know him as the British megastar who hit the scene in 1998 with his popular television series and corresponding cookbook, The Naked Chef. Food Network fans have since grown to love his fresh, simple, and savory flavor combinations -- and don't mind his charming banter, either.

But Jamie Oliver, 33, is much more than an attractive media personality with an undeniable talent in the kitchen. This TV gourmand, magazine columnist, married father of two girls, and best-selling author of eight recipe-laden books -- as well as Jamie at Home, to be released stateside in September -- is also on a nutrition mission.

Jamie Oliver Takes on School Lunches

Alarmed by the rising obesity rates and the amount of junk food being served to kids at school in his native U.K., Oliver requested and was given a meeting with then-prime minister Tony Blair back in 2005. The young chef issued a challenge to the powerful politico: Fix the dismal state of hot lunches. The School Food Trust was born, with its motto, "Eat better. Do better." Three years on, this government initiative swaps fried fare for wholesome vegetables, provides ongoing training to school kitchen staffs, and is slowly transforming how British kids eat.

Oliver sees parallels to the United States, with its epidemic of childhood obesity, the increase of type 2 diabetes being diagnosed among young adults and even children, and the vending-machine mentality of many school lunchrooms in this country. "What we eat affects everything: our mood, behavior, health, growth, even our ability to concentrate," says the chef. "A lunchtime school meal should provide a growing child with one-third their daily nutritional intake."

Joy Bauer, MS, RD, CDN, best-selling author of Joy Bauer's Food Cures: Treat Common Health Concerns, Look Younger and Live Longer, agrees. "Without a doubt, balanced nutrition is key for kids to maintain concentration academically. Every school lunch should offer both complex carbohydrates and lean proteins-a turkey-breast sandwich on whole wheat bread is a simple and perfect example of this -- to boost brain and staying power, level moods, and keep blood sugars on an even keel. In other words, a plain bagel, with nothing else, can produce volatile spikes in blood sugars and can set up kids for a crash."

And a healthy sandwich with low-fat mayo is just a start, says Bauer. "Fiber in produce is also extremely important because it slows the absorption of carbohydrates into the system, which also keeps blood sugars level. There should be at least one fruit or vegetable in every school lunch or lunchbox, and preferably both."

With these guidelines in mind, WebMD caught up with Oliver to ask how American parents can resist fast-food lunch shortcuts.

What inspired you to rid U.K. schools of chips, soda, and candy?

That was actually just part of the campaign. There was a lot more to it -- making sure that catering staff could get training, that each school actually had a kitchen, because many didn't, and essentially ensuring that kids were getting a hot, nutritious meal every school day, 190 days of the year. In a lot of places we visited, we had kids eating fries for lunch and then fries when they got home every single day, and that wasn't good!

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