Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/September 1872/School Dietaries

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By M. D.

IN the neighborhood of one of our midland cities is a school for some fifty boys, varying in age from nine or ten to fourteen or fifteen years. During some recent visits to this school, the singular healthiness and heartiness of the boys made me curious to learn exactly how they were fed. The following I ascertained to be the dietary:

Breakfast (in summer at 8, in winter at 8.30) consists of tea or good strong coffee, with abundance of milk, bread-and-butter, and cold meat. By way of change, now and then, eggs for a few days together take the place of meat. Before the foregoing, boys who like it have a small basin of bread-and-milk, or of Scotch porridge made with milk. The milk is new, and comes straight from a farm adjoining the school-grounds.

Lunch at 11.—Each boy has a small fresh roll of bread, or a bun, or a captain's biscuit, and, if weakly, a tumbler of milk or small glass of wine or ale; but, as a rule, nothing is drunk at lunch, dinner, or supper, but pure water.

Dinner, at 1.30, always consists of two courses: 1. Two kinds of meat, viz., beef and mutton, with not less than two kinds of vegetables, and of these a liberal supply. 2. Pudding, usually of fruit, fresh or preserved according to the season, and always well sweetened. On four days of the week the meat is hot roast; on one day it is hot boiled; on one day steaks, cutlets, or made dishes, are substituted for joints; while the Sunday dinner always consists of cold beef, mashed potatoes or salad, and plum-pudding. After dinner some ripe fruit, as an orange or some kind of garden-fruit, according to the season.

Tea at 6 p. m.—Tea, bread-and-butter, varied almost daily either with home-made plum-cake, or marmalade or honey. Whenever procurable, some salad-herb, such as lettuce, radish, etc., is given at this meal, and always eaten with much relish.

Supper at 8 p. m. (for senior boys only).—Bread-and-butter, or bread-and-cheese, or biscuit, or, where it may seem needed, a tumbler of milk, or glass of beer and a meat sandwich.

No hampers of eatables are allowed to be sent to the boys from their friends, and no shop for the sale of sweets, etc., is allowed or accessible to the boys.

This dietary seems to me so exactly what growing boys or girls ought to have, and so often what they do not get, even at their own homes, that it may appropriately serve as the text for a few remarks on the usual dietaries of public and private schools. I will begin by at once stating my belief—as one who was himself at a private and a public school, and who still sees a good deal of school-boys—that either in quality, quantity, variety, or frequency of meals, the dietary of nearly every school I have known is more or less defective.

The usually unvaried breakfast of tea or coffee (and these fluids too often of a miserably thin description), with bread-and-butter, is a meagre meal for a boy who has to break a twelve-hours' fast. It is not enough for the robust, nor varied enough for the delicate. A good basin of bread-and-milk, or milk-porridge, should always be allowed as a substitute for tea or coffee; and the latter, when preferred, should always be accompanied with some little extra, such as a bit of cold meat, or bacon, or an egg—sometimes one, sometimes the other, so as to secure the utmost possible variety. Coffee, by-the-way, should be of good quality, strong enough to require copious dilution with milk, and not the sloppy decoction of brown paper which it too often resembles in taste, appearance, and nutritive value.

Nearly all boys want something between breakfast and dinner, about 11 o'clock; and if this something be not provided for them in a wholesome form by the school-master, they will seek to get it, probably in a much less wholesome form, at the school "shop," or in the contents of the "hamper from home." Concerning these two venerable institutions more shall be said presently.

Meat or other food of bad quality is hardly ever put on the table nowadays in any decent school. Equally rare is any stint in its allowance. The fault of most school dinners is roughness in the cooking and serving, insufficient variety in the form and kind of meat and vegetables, and the too frequent absence of puddings. It will be seen by the above dietary that, with very little strain of culinary arrangements, meat may be served up in half a dozen different forms each week, and, if two kinds of it always come to table, ample variety will have been attained. Variety in food is no mere luxury or pampering of appetite. In all cases desirable, in the case of growing boys it is highly so; while in the case of boys with delicate or capricious appetites it becomes an absolute necessity. A certain percentage of such boys will be found in every school—boys who, if denied considerable range of choice in their food, will at least fail to thrive in the midst of plenty.

A boy's chief meal should always consist of two courses, meat and pudding.[1] Many boys, being small meat-eaters, should at least have the chance of "making up" with something further, and good reason can be given why this something should be a well-sweetened pudding or tart; if containing fresh or preserved fruit, so much the better. All boys as a rule dislike meat fat and leave it on their plates, and it is a barbarous practice to try to make them eat it.[2] And yet the same fat in a different guise, embodied with flour in a well-cooked pudding, they as universally like. All boys, again, love sugar and the juices of fresh vegetables or fruits, and it is a grave mistake not to secure a fair proportion of these elements in their daily food. Now, a well-made fruit-pudding or tart combines these several elements in happy proportion and palatable form; and boys' universal liking for this article of diet is simply the practical expression of the physiological truth that fat and its chemical allies, starch and sugar, together with certain organic acids and salts, are indispensable to the healthy constitution of the blood; in other words, to the due building up and maintenance of the fabric of the body.

A boy who has dined at 1 or 1.30 is ready by 6 o'clock for something more than the eternal tea and bread-and-butter. He keenly relishes at this meal some little variety or addition, such as plain homemade cake, or some preserve, or a bit of whatever salad-herb may be in season. The dietetic value of salad-herbs (lettuce, water-cress, etc.) to growing boys is out of all proportion to their cost. Where there is a kitchen-garden (which every school should have), they practically cost nothing. Where they have to be bought, they need not cost much; and, even if they do, they will be worth the price.

Should boys have supper? Up to about twelve years of age they rarely need it, for boys of this age by 9 o'clock are ready for bed, and should be in bed; but from thirteen or fourteen onward boys much dislike being sent to bed so early, and if they do, say, one and a half or two hours' work after tea, they feel the want of, and ought to have, a light meal between 8 and 9 o'clock.

In the dietary above quoted it will probably excite surprise that no beer or other stimulant is allowed either at dinner or at any other meal or time in the day, except in special cases where a boy's health is thought to require such aid. If proof were needed that boys may grow up in the perfection of health and strength without any stimulants whatever, provided they are liberally fed, I might point to the splendid physique of the little inmates of this particular school, and invite any one to see how they work and how they play. Where the food is amply sufficient and varied, a boy does not want beer, nay, is better without it; where the food is not so, beer or wine will but imperfectly supplement its shortcomings. With delicate or sickly boys, of course the case is different; they have special needs in respect of stimulants which it would be foolish to ignore.

Another noteworthy point in the arrangements of this school is the veto on all "hampers from home," and the absence of any "shop" for the sale of sweets, etc. These are far from harmless institutions; they are time-honored abominations which cannot be too strongly condemned. The evil tendencies, at any rate of the latter, are so glaring that its authorized existence is, in my opinion, a blot upon any school. Setting aside the trash eaten, the sickness caused, the morbid appetite and habit of selfish gluttony acquired, and the facilities afforded for the introduction of contraband goods—the money boys often spend at these places is grievous to think of. I can vouch for many a boy, whose parents were weak enough to supply him with almost unlimited pocket-money, having often spent at his school "shop" a weekly sum quite sufficient to feed a poor family. Now, where school-meals are abundant enough, varied enough (especially in respect of sugar, starch, and vegetable juices), and frequent enough, there the inmates will have no further craving for cakes, sweets, fruits, etc. But if there be a shortcoming in one or other of these respects, then instinct drives the boys to seek elsewhere those elements of food in which their regular diet is deficient. An authorized "tuck-shop," therefore, in connection with a school, is prima-facie evidence to an outsider, and not uncommonly a tacit admission on the part of the school-proprietor, that the diet of the inmates by no means satisfies all their legitimate cravings.

That a scale of diet such as I have here advocated is just about what boys ought to have—if they are to develop into strong, healthy men—I am satisfied from personal experience and observation. That it is at all likely to meet with the acceptance of school-masters generally, I am not simple enough to suppose. It is too violent an innovation on old routine. Nay, even paterfamilias himself will probably pooh-pooh such new-fangled notions of feeding boys like grown men (especially when he finds they cost more money), forgetting that boys need more and more varied food than men. So-and-so was good enough for his (pater's) boyhood, why won't it do for his son's? But paterfamilias should speak only for himself. The diet of his schooldays sufficed for him, thanks probably to his sound constitution, but was it enough for many of his less robust schoolmates? Did any of these in after-years fail to grow up strong and healthy men? and, if so, is paterfamilias sure that their "simple," i. e., monotonous and meagre mode of feeding during their years of most active growth had naught to do with their failure?

Just as any system of teaching is a real success in proportion as it adapts itself to the peculiar needs—not of those who are quick and willing, but of those who are slow or averse to learn—so any scale of diet approaches perfection in exact proportion to the provision made, not merely for the average standard of taste and appetite, but for all reasonable deviations therefrom. The daily meals of a school may be abundant and of good quality, still, if they be not more varied than to my certain knowledge they often are, many a boy and girl must fail day after day to get those particular elements of nutrition which they specially require. The result with such boys and girls is that even in the midst of plenty they remain permanently underfed and imperfectly nourished, thus retarding, if not arresting, the due growth and development of their bodies, and strongly favoring the development of any inherited or other constitutional unsoundness lurking within them.—Food Journal.

  1. Boys seldom care for soup.
  2. I was myself at a private school—an average good one in its day—where the rule was enforced that on "pudding-days" no boy who had left any fat on his plate should have any pudding. After a while meat rose in price, and, by way of "choking us off," we were made on these said days to eat the pudding before the meat. This was blundering strategy on the master's part, for he had now no hold upon us, and the meat was of course eaten without any fat at all.