New regulations mean school canteens are serving healthy food, but too many pupils still skip breakfast.
A sound diet must begin at home, say educators
ABU DHABI // Most children skip breakfast and stock up on fatty foods at break time.
That is the conclusion reached by Dr Osama Alalla, a health specialist at the Ministry of Education who conducted a study of 3,000 schoolchildren in public schools between 2009 and last year.
Good eating habits need to start at home, Dr Alalla said.
"It is proven that kids who skip their morning meal tend to reach out for meals with high sugar content and they eat more," he said.
Many parents skip breakfast and let their children do the same, Dr Alalla said. "Parents say they do not have the time or the kids leave too early and instead give them unhealthy things like chips and biscuits to munch on," he said.
The ministry has started lessons at schools to show pupils the advantages of healthy eating.
The Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority last year banned schools from selling items such as crisps, burgers and shawarma.
The Dubai Health Authority and Dubai Municipality will do the same when schools reopen next week.
But pupils further need to be persuaded to change their eating habits when they are not at school.
Amna Jawaad said she tried giving her teenage son vegetable stew to take for lunch at his Abu Dhabi state school but it returned untouched.
"What can I do if he does not like it?" Ms Jawaad asked. "He has to eat something so if I give him a burger at least I know he will eat it.
"I still try to limit his junk food by giving him sandwiches but I am not sure what he eats at school."
Another parent suggested schools should monitor lunch boxes.
"If another child brings nuggets to school then they will share it, and the next day my child will want to take it to school too," said the mother, who did not wish to be named.
Schools in the Northern Emirates are not allowed to sell junk food, but guidelines have not been released.
Guidelines will not help if children do not understand why their favourite snack has been replaced with an apple, said Samira Al Nuaimi, the vice principal of the Salamah bint Butti Public School in Bani Yas.
Her school's canteen menu has improved in recent years, she said, but it still sold rice crisps, processed fruit juices and croissants.
"We are trying to make children aware through sessions with health experts but there needs to be more parental involvement in educating them as well," Ms Al Nuaimi said.