It has been widely reported that Dubai is in the midst of a childhood obesity epidemic, with the UAE ranking fifth in the world for the number of overweight children. The Dubai government has tackled the issue head on, and the Dubai Health Authority has worked extensively to implement guidelines across the city’s schools through the UAE School Specification for Healthy Foods Committee, such as the ‘My Plate’ healthy eating model from the US.

Addressing nutrition is only part of the solution, however, we live in an age when mealtimes have lost their structure, both at school and at home – when food is slotted into a busy schedule and meals are more often shared with a smartphone or TV than family and friends.

While healthier meals are a step in the right direction, we need to educate both children and their families on rediscovering the joy of mealtimes, in terms of the food served and the social occasion itself.

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Mealtimes at DBS JP

Taaleem’s Dubai British School Jumeirah Park launched in September 2015, and from the start enlisted Michelin-starred chef Gary Rhodes for a unique take on the school dining experience. In consultation with Taaleem and the young diners themselves, Rhodes developed a concept that integrated a healthy, balanced and organic menu with a more formal lunchtime setting, focusing on social skills and dining etiquette such as table manners.

Many schools are now offering a healthier lunch, yet very few focus on the environment in which children are eating. ‘Research has shown that children are more likely to eat a healthier meal when mealtimes are longer, there is a positive communal atmosphere and they are integrated with adults as well as their peers.’

At DBS JP, every school meal is regarded as a special occasion. With longer lunch times, the semi-formal dining room is set up so that students can sit and socialise, with a top table where children are invited to eat with senior staff. Unlike many schools’ traditional canteen format, children are actively involved in the meal itself – after sitting down to a fresh soup or salad, the main course and desserts are served at the table by the students themselves, who are also responsible for clearing up.

Also read: Balance your child’s snack

A social occasion

Conversation over lunch is actively encouraged at DBS JP – not only do students rediscover the art of socializing and sharing food, but children are also more likely to try new foods when they’re surrounded by friends.

‘We need to emphasise social interaction at school quite simply because it is something we have to do for the rest of our lives,’ says Rhodes. ‘We want the students at DBS JP to be happy and enjoy their lunch. Our aim is to make kids look forward to the next day’s meal, and to bring together friends in a family-style service with great conversation across the table.’

The holistic approach at DBS JP sees children learning that ‘healthy’ doesn’t have to be the boring option. Much like Rhodes’ famed restaurants, the chef has put together a mouth-watering menu of snacks, main courses, side dishes and desserts which are guaranteed to appeal to even the fussiest young palates. Think salmon fishcakes with lemon mayonnaise, roast chicken with mashed sweet potato and carrots, or banana and date fingers – seasonal and organic, it’s full of hidden veggies, natural ingredients and exciting new flavors, and without harmful additives or artificial coloring’s.

Tailored to fit the nutritional and developmental needs of growing children, the results speak for themselves – students truly enjoy their meals, are more focused throughout the rest of the school day, and are more confident at trying new flavours and dishes.

‘It’s not just about the food, it’s the whole package,’ says Chef Rhodes. ‘Children have to eat, so let’s do it well – so they can enjoy it and actually understand the flavours they’re eating. We want to make lunch an occasion; it’s not about scoffing away and thinking ‘that will do’. I’d like to think that one day we’ll have children who will stop conversation during a meal to ask ‘have you tried that yet?’.’

This article was written by Clive Pierrepont, Director of Communications at Taaleem , a school management company which runs schools such as Dubai British School, Uptown School and Al-Mizhar American Academy.