Many kindergartens and schools in Estonia are serving students exclusively vegetarian meals one day a week, and both the National Institute for Health Development (TAI) and the Ministry of Social Affairs welcome increasing the share of vegetables in school meals.
Neither the Ministry of Education and Research nor the Ministry of Social Affairs have an exact overview of just how many schools and kindergartens there are offering vegetarian menus on a specific day of the week, as not one Estonian entity keeps records of this information.
The Vegetarian Tuesday (Taimne Teisipäev) homepage notes that 179 schools and kindergartens have joined the project, which is backed by animal welfare NGO Invisible Animals (Nähtamatud Loomad). It is uncertain, however, how many of these institutions are in fact exclusively serving vegetarian meals on Vegetarian Tuesday and how many are offering them as an alternative on the menu.
One such school regularly providing vegetarian meals is Rakvere High School of Sciences, whose principal Martti Marksoo told ERR that their school meal contract allows diners to choose each day between an entree and a soup together with dessert.
"We have it arranged so that in a week, there's a vegetarian entree one day and a vegetarian soup one day, but not both on the same day, so that those who eat meat don't have to run to the store one day a week," Marksoo explained. "Every day we have at least four or five different types of fresh salad, so even on days when both options contain meat, vegetarians will still be well fed."
He noted that kids' attitudes toward vegetarian food can be dish-specific. For example, in the case of some risottos, students haven't even initially noticed that they don't contain any meat.
"Children's eating habits vary widely, and [we're also seeing] increasing numbers of vegan and vegetarian children," Marksoo said. "What's crucial is that they, too, can eat their fill at the school cafeteria every day and that they don't need to bring boxed food along."
He added that a menu including both meat and vegetarian options wouldn't give anyone reason to complain, but due to school menu requirements, the food offered must be "very healthy" and that there are kids who prefer going across the street to buy a roll from the store to eating the food provided.
At the Ministry of Social Affairs, Department of Public Health adviser Kadi Reintam said that vegetarian food days are not, nor will they become, mandatory at Estonian schools, but added that that doesn't mean they can't be done or that additional vegetarian options can't be made available.
"Students could be offered various school lunch options on the same day to choose from themselves," Reintam suggested. "Offering vegetarian food and increasing the share of vegetables are very much welcome."
School and kindergarten catering is based on health protection requirements included in regulations issued by the minister of social protection, according to which children's institution caterers are obligated to meet one third of children's protein needs from animal proteins – but that these sources cannot be limited to only milk and milk proteins.
Vegetarian meal days don't violate these requirements – according to Reintam, the menu will generally include eggs or dairy products, ensuring that kids will still receive animal-based proteins.
TAI: Daily meat not necessary, but avoid meat products
Tagli Pitsi, a nutrition and movement expert at TAI, said that as diverse a diet as possible is recommended not just for growing bodies, but in fact for everyone, to prevent any nutrient deficiencies, but that that doesn't mean that you necessarily have to eat meat each day.
"We know that from a health standpoint, a maximum of 350 grams of red meat – pork, beef, lamb, game – should be eaten a week, and that meat products should be avoided altogether," Pitsi said. "When taking the environmental aspect and variety of food into account as well, someone with a daily energy need of 2,000 calories, for example, should eat approximately 100 grams of red meat and 300-400 grams of poultry a week."
Fish should also be on the menu at least once a week, but ideally even two or three times a week, she continued.
"Such quantities of meat and fish, plus sufficient dairy products, should provide sufficient [amounts of] those vitamins, minerals and other nutrients of which these foods are the main sources," she explained.
Taking this into consideration, Pitsi found that one vegetarian food day a week isn't a bad idea at all. As children and adults alike also eat too few vegetables, she continued, vegetarian food days provide a good opportunity to introduce kids to delicious vegetarian foods while also contributing to developing more planet-supporting dietary habits.
Nonetheless, TAI deems it important that it's quantities of specifically ordinary vegetables, including legumes, that are increased, not that kids be increasingly offered expensive meat substitutes.
The Ministry of Social Affairs is currently working on a regulation that will specify that in menus containing pork, beef or lamb, the total quantities of meat offered must fall within the health-based recommended range.
For example, in kindergartens, this would mean 150-250 grams of red meat over ten kindergarten days, while school lunches should include 100-200 grams of red meat over the same time period – in this case, the higher amount of meat in kindergarten menus is due to the fact that kids are served more meals a day in kindergarten.
"We can see that poultry should be offered in kindergarten at least twice a week, and in schools at least once a week," Reintam noted.
She added that unlike meat, fish quantities only have minimum requirements, as fish is a good source of polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamin D3, not to mention other important vitamins and minerals.
"We can see in the rough draft of the regulation that dishes prepared with fresh, frozen or chilled fish should be offered at least once a week," the adviser said, noting that a minimum total of 120 grams and 100 grams of fish must be offered per ten school or kindergarten days, respectively.
Pitsi pointed out that Estonian dietary guidelines recommend eating foods from all five main food groups: grains and potatoes; fruits, vegetables and berries; milk and dairy products; eggs, fish and meat; and added dietary fats, nuts and seeds, and oils.
"When eliminating a food group completely, one has to be keenly aware of what foods to eat to obtain the nutrients you would otherwise get from that [food] group," the TAI expert stressed. "In that case, it'll most likely be necessary to take certain additional supplements as well."
Editor: Aili Vahtla