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Fast food can be healthy: primary school children in Rogun celebrate International School Meals Day

One day in March, the children in secondary school №2 in Rogun, Tajikistan, welcomed quite unusual guests: healthy Mr. Fennel and harmful Mr. Hamburger, who arrived to celebrate the International School Meals Day, a favorite occasion when SIFI and UN WFP talk about the importance of the School Feeding Programme.

This year, the ISMD was marked on March 9 with the theme “Our changing food – methods, menus, and meals.” All those celebrating were suggested to answer different questions such as “How did your diet change during the recent years?”, “How is our food grown and cooked?”, “What dishes are served in school canteens?” and “What do children like to eat?”

Based on this exciting and broad theme, we decided to build the concept of the International School Meals Day celebration in Tajikistan on the idea of tasting new healthy recipes.

By tradition, the main celebration was preceded by Healthy Nutrition Week, when the primary school children participated in various activities crowned with a meeting with fairytale heroes.

How children prepared for the meeting

Healthy Nutrition Week took place from March 6 to 10. On Monday, primary school teachers invited the children to a homeroom hour to discuss what the ISMD is and why we celebrate it. They also talked about healthy eating habits, the healthy plate principle, and the importance of a balanced diet. The lesson consisted of games, easy conversations, and discussions and ended with completing the first task of the advent calendar.

The advent calendar is a poster with tasks the children were supposed to fulfill before the International School Meals Day celebration. Every day, from Monday to Friday, the children uncovered one card with the task and completed it, awaiting a miracle.

The calendar helped create a pre-festive atmosphere and turned the preparation for the gala occasion into an exciting quest for the little ones.

The design of the advent calendar was based on the concept of a healthy plate divided into four parts with photographs of wholegrain products, protein-containing products, vegetables, and fruits. Four cards with the days of the week – Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday – were fixed on each part of the plate. Wednesday was March 8, a day off. Every day the teacher unpinned a card and read out the task. The tasks were simple, but the children liked them a lot. They painted a healthy plate with their favorite products, made origami, solved riddles about vegetables and fruits, and invented their own.

When the last card, Friday, was removed, the children saw an invitation to the school’s assembly hall to meet Mr. Fennel and Mr. Hamburger.

The long-awaited meeting

When March 10 finally arrived, 634 primary school children gathered at the assembly hall to get acquainted with the fairytale guests. As actual hosts, the children staged a sketch about vegetables, recited, sang songs, and danced. The warm welcome was followed by an interactive performance presented by Fennel and Hamburger. Instructed by Mr. Fennel, the children conducted experiments, played games dedicated to healthy eating, and successfully transformed a harmful hamburger into a healthy one. Finally, they learned which ingredients should be used to make healthy fast food: wholegrain bread, a steamed cutlet or slices of baked meat, cucumber, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, yougurt instead of mayonnaise. Such a burger will never harm our health!

Tasting healthy recipes

After the performance the children made sure that not only hamburgers but pizza and cookies can also be healthy. Replacing ingredients and cooking methods can transform fast food into a healthy thing. In the school canteen, the children were offered to taste a cauliflower pizza and chocolate oatmeal cookies without flour made by the school cooks. Of course, not all liked the alternative recipes. It is not easy to feel the taste of natural products when taste buds are used to foods with taste enhancers and flavorings. However, these children have a life ahead. Many of them took home the cards with the recipes cooked in the school canteen with a solid determination to ask parents to cook them at home.

“I liked the food we ate in the canteen. The cauliflower pizza was delicious, and I asked my mother to cook one at home,” 4th-grader Osia Valiyeva said.

In addition to Friday treats, the children tasted unusual dishes from the school menu during Healthy Nutrition Week. From Monday to Thursday, school cooks prepared salad with cucumber and chickpea, omelet with potatoes, onions, and cheese, and curds soufflé. All recipes had inexpensive ingredients and were easy to cook. The children could take home the recipes they liked most (cards with recipes were distributed in the canteen) and ask their parents to cook them.

What should parents know about healthy nutrition?

We did our best to explain to parents the importance of helping their children be healthy and maintain a balanced diet. An experienced chef and SIFI trainer, Zulfia Fayziyeva, taught the parents the nuances of making healthy and tasty cookies. At the same time, the specialist of the Republican Nutrition Center at the Ministry of Health and Social Protection of the Population of Tajikistan, Matlyuba Habibulloyeva, talked about healthy and organic products which should be included in children’s diet to ensure their growth and development.

Mr. Fennel and his friend Hamburger left the school with a feeling of a duty accomplished and confidence that the children will remember all they learned and will hence fill their plates for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with healthy and organic products, while their parents will help them by cooking new delicious and healthy dishes.

“I was happy to be a part of this event. Most of all, I liked origami, rhymes, stories about vitamins, and the creation of the healthy plate,” said Omina Nurova from grade 3.

“I participated in the performance and learned a lot. I admired Fennel’s experiments. I understood that soda, chips, and salty breadcrumbs damage our stomachs,” added Gulnisso Shakarshoyeva from grade 4.