Catering for Health

Cyberschools Column

First Published in The Herald, May 1999



If Home Economics conjures up images of tea and scones and catering for the staff "do", think again. More appropriate titles might be Food Technology or Hospitality. Home Economics is a technological subject within the 5 - 14 programme and the technology of the kitchen should now include a computer with Internet access. Professionals within the food and hospitality industry have been amongst the first to make effective use of the medium.

The Web site of the British Nutrition Foundation is a good place to start, even before beginning to plan a menu or select ingredients. This site, like the subject itself, considers the theory behind the practice. The pages define nutrients and identify food commodities which could be used to make up daily requirements. For students about to start the new Higher Still courses this Web site will be a valuable resource.

It explains that demand for energy and most nutrients is relatively high for teenagers because during adolescence an average of 23cm will be added to height and 20 - 26kg to weight. Catering for health requires knowledge of the consumer's real needs.

The good news for students is that such energy could be obtained through frequent snacks as well as through meals. Health experts recommend five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. Understanding the benefits of a healthy lifestyle could ensure better health much later and as there is an increasing tendency for teenagers, particularly girls, to control their weight by methods such as smoking or adopting very low energy diets, it's important that the effects of specific deficiencies are explained.

Surveys show that the diet of the average adult in the UK provides more than enough of most nutrients but that the percentage of energy derived from total fat and saturated fatty acids is higher than recommended. Details of the eating habits of Scots are posted on the Web and they don't reveal a healthier picture than that seen in the rest of the UK.

The full report of the Scottish Diet Action Group explains the trends, effects and targets. Consideration of its implications, in language more appropriate for classroom use, is available on the Media Matters site.

Dietary targets for 2005 include doubling the average intake of fruit, vegetables and breakfast cereals and encouraging the consumption of brown bread, while reducing the intake of fats, salt and sugar. No surprises there perhaps but it has yet to happen.

The "Learn" section on the NutraNet site, a site created by three students, also provides basic information and advice about nutrition, as well as suggestions about how such advice can be implemented. This resource was produced as an entry for the ThinkQuest competition and is a good illustration of what students can produce. A guide to vitamins and minerals is included which outlines their importance as well as explaining the effect of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. A wider glossary of food technology terms is also available.

The NutraNet Xtra section reveals the nutritional value - or lack of it - of various fast foods and lists these by outlet. It provides an ideal source for the type of comparison seen recently in specimen exam papers for the new courses.

CyberDiet also provides a useful guide to eating out in terms of dishes from, for example, Greece, France and India. The Web pages suggest healthier ways of preparing familiar recipes and would be a good resource if investigating how a recipe could be amended or when researching foods of the world.

The Food Files, another student entry in the ThinkQuest competition, not only provides information about nutrition and healthy eating but also gives advice about handling foods safely and looks at what happens when such advice is ignored. The site includes information about buying, storing and preparing food as well as about kitchen practices.

Nevada State Health Division supplies even greater detail on its Safe Food Backgrounder site which explains handling practices and provides information about a range of food-related diseases. An overview of each one is given, as well as an identification of sources and symptoms and suggested control measures. The information is brief but the list is almost identical to that specified in the Higher Arrangements.

Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services also provides information for consumers via the Internet. A single page, Nine Ways to Prevent Salmonella Infection from Eggs informs the reader in detail without being alarmist. Very often Internet materials provided by American state administrations are straightforward and provide resources which could be readily used in the classroom.

The UK Government tends to include more formal, official documents on its Web sites but some of these are, nevertheless, useful. The Department of Health Web site provides an explanation of the Food Safety (General Food Hygiene) Regulations, 1995 and also outlines the proposal for a Food Standards Agency. Observing current legislation is vitally important in catering establishments and it's important that students are aware of the requirements.

Understanding nutritional values, observing health and safety and being familiar with legal requirements may be a long way from the the domestic image with which Home Economics is sometimes still hindered but it is the reality of modern catering and hence catering courses.

For many students a career in the hospitality industry is a first choice and this is reflected in a 25%rise over the past five years) in the number of candidates taking Home Economics at Higher grade. With role models such as Nick Nairn and other celebrity chefs, working in the kitchen has become fashionable.

Nairns Web site is a good example of creative use of Internet technology in the hospitality industry. Lunch and dinner menus are listed and could be ideal case studies of menu planning. Examining the stylish way in which the hotel is presented could also form part of an investigation into local hospitality provision while the feedback area could be used as the source of an investigation into ways in which customer comments are gathered and assessed.

Internet access in the kitchen may not, at first, seem like a priority but if Internet access is to be used to support the curriculum then it is important to identify subjects for which its use is ideally suited. Home Economics and its sister subject, Hospitality, should be at the forefront of Internet use. The industry into which interested students might progress has not been slow to use the technology whether for research, the spread of information or marketing. Catering now requires computers.