How to navigate the Traffic Light System

Developing a healthy canteen menu has been made easier with the federal government’s National Healthy School Canteens: Guidelines for Healthy Foods and Drink Supplied in School Canteens (NHSC).

As an overview it recommends students eat broadly from a wide variety of foods from the five main groups. Firstly, this means they are offered plenty of different coloured vegetables; fruit; grain-based foods including breads, rice, pasta, polenta, couscous and barley. Also on offer should be some protein from lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts, seeds and legumes; and a little less dairy products such as milk, yoghurt, cheese or their plant-based equivalents. The guidelines suggest limiting the consumption of saturated fat, added salt and added sugar. It strongly advises food safety and encourages students to drink plenty of water.

To help make implementing the guidelines easy for everyone a traffic light system has been developed. Green traffic light foods they are good, amber traffic light foods OK every now and then and red traffic light foods should be avoided.

Green foods and drinks are recommended to be served and considered healthy choices both for the canteen and school lunches, and snacks prepared at home. These are drinks, snacks and meals that contain a wide range of nutrients and are low in saturated fat, salt and sugar. Green traffic light foods include fresh fruit and vegetables, lean meats, fish, low-fat dairy and whole grain breads and cereals, water and low-fat milk drinks. One pathway to make Green traffic light foods is to replace full fat dairy products like yoghurt and ricotta cheese with low-fat versions. Use low sodium or salt reduced spreads and sauces. Bulk out dishes with brown rice and high fibre pasta and make salads with more greenery and coloured vegetables, and small portion sizes of low fat protein such as lean chicken and ham.

Amber traffic light foods include dim sims, pastries, un-iced cakes, yeast spreads and chicken wing should be offered less and although they contain some valuable nutrients, they contain more saturated fat, salt and sugar and if eaten in large amounts can increase the number of kilojoules consumed. When preparing dishes light chicken wings, uses less salt and dry roast instead of frying. Offer steamed dim sims instead of fried dim sims and vegetable pies and sausage rolls instead of ones made entirely from meat.

Red traffic light foods are considered to contain too much salt, sugar and fat to be sold at schools and are even not recommended to be brought from home. Red traffic light foods include confectionary, sugary drinks, iced cakes, deep-fried food and foods containing some artificial additives.

Learn more via the Government’s comprehensive guide

The rules and regulations of running a canteen differ between the states and territories. In New South Wales and the ACT canteens need to be registered food businesses. In some states and territories school canteens are required to adhere to the state government canteen guidelines when it comes to setting the menu and what is on offer on a daily basis, while Catholic and private schools are simply encouraged to follow suit. Food safety is a core ingredient to healthy eating and food safety plans and adherence to local government food authority regulations are standard. Work safety is essential and compliance with the appropriate state’s workplace safety authority is vital. 

There is no national working with children check and each jurisdiction has its own requirements. As a rule, all paid canteen managers need a working with children check, while it is generally required that volunteers do as well, but that depends on the type of school and in which state. If you’re new to the role or have moved to a new area it is wise to check with local authorities.

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