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Healthy school lunches

Chef Lance Seeto
Sunday, December 09, 2012

Fried fish and chips, oily roti parcels, salty snacks and fizzy carbonated drinks dominate Fiji's schools, and so is it any wonder that Fijians are learning unhealthy eating habits at such a young age. By the time most of these children leave school, and enter the workforce or return to the village, their appetite for bad food is well and truly entrenched.

Instead of eating to promote strong healthy bones, teeth and immune system, Fiji's children are developing a taste for the sweet, salty and artificial flavours. Into adulthood, it is near impossible to get people to change. We are all creatures of habit, and getting people to change their diet because of health and longer life becomes more difficult. That is, until we experience the premature death of a loved one or we become sick ourselves.

Make no mistake, giving children fizzy drinks and unhealthy foods at home or school when young, guarantees they will be drinking and eating the same when they get older.

In huge contrast to how much Fijians love their children, many parents and school canteens show a disregard and disrespect to their kids by allowing them to eat terrible foods.

Simply giving them money to buy food at school is a lazy excuse for not thinking about the future health of your children. With every bite of deep fried, oily, overly sweet or salty foods, we are condemning the future generation of Fijians to a life of obesity, diabetes, cancer or heart disease. The current rate of non-communicable diseases in this country is by no accident, or will of God. The Ministry of Health acknowledge that the change of diet and lifestyle is one of the main reasons behind the increase in NCDs.

On a recent visit to a prominent school in the capital city, I was shocked to see young children buy deep fried chips, battered fish and more oily food for lunch, finished off with a sugary fruit or fizzy drink. Some of the older secondary students opted out of the oily food, but happily lined up for boiling hot water to make their instant noodles seasoned with those nasty flavour sachets containing artificial flavours, refined salt, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and food additives.

Most of these artificial additives have been banned in Australia, especially in foods for children, but are still widespread in lollies, packet chips and instant noodle sachets in Fiji. While they certainly add flavour, most of the foods that have these artificial flavourings offer no nutritional value compared to fresh fruits, lean meats and raw vegetables.

In last week's episode of Taste of Paradise, my assistant chef Kunal and I opened up a healthy school canteen to demonstrate the reaction of primary school students to new lunch ideas. Guess what? They loved them!

Many of the parents of these children suggested that they would not be receptive to healthy lunches of filled rolls, fresh filled roti and hand squeezed fruit juices but the reactions were of surprise and delight. Like many of the new flavours and simplicity of preparing food on the show, the kids were surprised they enjoyed these new ideas.

A roti is traditionally filled with oily curry throughout Fiji, and whilst there is nothing wrong with curry roti, for the children, it offers little nutritional benefit for their growing bodies.

Instead of putting potato or lamb curry inside, I used smoked chicken, a fresh salad and a dressing of either cream cheese or honey and Dijon mustard.

Any fresh lean meat with salad in bread or roti is going to provide the carbohydrates, protein and vitamins young children need to keep them alert and energised at school. Then followed the fresh juices as an alternative to the fizzy drinks currently served to children across the islands. I know that one fruit supplier is working on producing fresh juices infused with herbs for the New Year. The boy who said he didn't like ginger was impressed that a simple carrot and ginger juice was not only delicious but healthy for him.

The lessons of last week's episode were clear. Give the children a choice between oily junk foods and tasty fresh foods that make them stronger and smarter, and they'll choose the fresh lunches nearly everytime. But it is up to the school canteen cooks and parents to be creative and innovative. The alternative is a nation of fat, overweight kids with unhealthy appetites and a lifelong diet that will surely lead to an NCD.

* Lance Seeto is the host of Fiji TV's "Taste of Paradise" broadcast in Fiji and across the South Pacific region every Thursday 8pm and Saturday 5.30pm on Fiji One. Follow his adventures on Facebook at "Fijian Food Safari" and "Taste Of Paradise".

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