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School food in the United Arab Emirates consists of a school meal programme that provides meals to public schools five days a week to pupils from pre-primary to secondary level in public schools. The Ministry of Education has developed some standards to control the types of food being provided, served and sold in school canteens, but these do not cover foods sold outside the school premises. Other types of school food include those brought from home.

School Food

School meals

The United Arab Emirates has a school meal programme (known as the School Nutrition Programme), which is led by the Emirates Schools Establishment, an independent government entity that is separate from the Ministry of Education. The programme provides nutritious meals for public schools five days a week during the school year, covering around 266,952 pupils at pre-primary, primary and secondary school levels. However, a high percentage of the population is from outside the country, so there is a high proportion of private schools in the United Arab Emirates. Private schools are not covered by the School Nutrition Programme.

There are seven different emirates in the United Arab Emirates, and cooperation arrangements for school food vary between educational councils, municipalities and different entities. For example, in Dubai Municipality, the Food Safety Department is responsible for private schools and the Emirates Schools Establishment manages public schools, whereas, in Abu Dhabi, the Abu Dhabi Agriculture and Food Safety Authority is responsible for private schools and the Emirates Schools Establishment is also responsible for public schools.

Low-cost school meals for the School Nutrition Programme are mostly prepared by catering companies in a central kitchen and then distributed to schools. Preparation modalities vary according to the type of school: public schools do not normally serve hot meals due to a lack of catering facilities, while private schools may have meals cooked on-site. Future plans for the School Nutrition Programme are to build kitchens in schools to enable cooking on-site.

At the pre-primary level, there is a four-week menu cycle that comprises a main dish, vegetables, fresh fruit, water and a dairy drink (either fresh cow’s milk, laban or fermented drink, or date milk). There is a different theme for each day of the week (e.g., Energy Monday, Emirate Tuesday, Bakery Dat Wednesday, Vege Thursday, Light Friday), and menus are updated each term. For primary and secondary schools, there is a list of more than 100 products (developed and approved by the Emirates Schools Establishment specialists in nutrition and hospitality) provided to schools, depending on their infrastructure and conditions (e.g., if they have enough storage space and kitchen facilities). These cover three modalities:

  • "Grap-and-go" modality, which includes baked items, sandwiches, vegetables and fruit, dairy and drinks products, snack products (wheat grain biscuit, fruit bars, sugar-free dates maamoul) and homemade snacks (banana bread, date ball with oats and chía seeds, mango muesli pot, fruit yoghurt, etc).
  • Hot meal menu modality which includes 10 different dishes, all of them accompanied by a side of vegetables (e.g.: chicken kabsa, vegetable pasta, baked potato, spaghetti bolognese, etc.)
  • Salad and sandwich options with breakfast buffet which is currently being tested in two schools.

The National Nutrition Strategy 2022-2030, developed by the Health Promotion Department within the Ministry of Health and Prevention, informs the National Nutrition Action Plan and includes nutrition policies and school canteen regulations. To this end, the Emirates Schools Establishment together with the Ministry of Education developed the Health standards and requirements for Food Handling in school canteens (2022) to control the types of food being provided, served and sold in school canteens. These standards cover all public schools in the United Arab Emirates but do not cover foods sold outside the school premises.

The Emirates Schools Establishment has also developed guidelines on foods brought from home. In general, foods high in sugar, salt and fat such as chocolate bars, processed meat, sweets, soft drinks, French fries, doughnuts, peanuts, instant noodles, etc. are discouraged.

The main characteristics of the Health Standards and Requirements for Food Handling in School Canteens (2022) are:

Users of the guidance
  • Caterers, food handlers
  • School administrators 
  • School tuck shop operators
  • Food suppliers
School food covered
  • Meals provided as part of the school meal programme
  • Foods sold inside school premises 
  1. Provide healthy food that meets all the requirements and procedures to be taken during its production, preparation, storage, and distribution to ensure its safety when consumed;
  2. Clarify the procedures and steps to be followed by school administrations and companies dealing with school food;
  3. Direct school administrations towards observing scientific standards in choosing appropriate foods and providing healthy options when dealing with foods that are sold within the school;
  4. Consider the nutritional needs of students according to the age group to support physical and academic growth;
  5. Enhance healthy dietary patterns among students at all levels to prevent chronic diseases; and
  6. Evolve the goals of the school canteen from providing food and profiting, to educating members of the school community, including students, parents and faculty
BasisFood and nutrient-based
Food groups coveredStaples and cereals, legumes and grain products, vegetable and fruit groups, milk and dairy products, meat, poultry, fish and alternatives, different foods (drinks, juices, tea, coffee, etc.)


Development process

The Health Standards and Requirements for Food Handling in School Canteens were developed in 2022 by the Emirates Schools Establishment and are compulsory for all public schools. They are based on recommended daily allowances derived from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2020-2025). The standards include general requirements for foods sold in school canteens, recommendations on how to read food labels, nutritional needs by age group, the American recommendations for healthy eating, the importance of water and fluids, a classification of food supplied in schools, healthy food preparation methods and hygienic practices (personal hygiene, general cleaning and food handling).

Private schools in the United Arab Emirates are not required to follow these health standards and can develop their own guidelines as described in the following examples from Dubai and Abu Dhabi:

As of 2023, the Ministry of Health is leading the process of developing national school canteen standards based on the United Arab Emirate’s own National Food-Based Dietary Guidelines and the nutrition situation of the Emirates, to align standards for school food across the country. A multi-stakeholder school food task force has been set up, consisting of the Ministry of Education, the Emirates Schools Establishment, the Department of Health–Abu Dhabi, the Dubai Health Authority, the Sharjah Private Education Authority, the Department of Education and Knowledge in Abu Dhabi, Knowledge and Human Development Authority and municipalities from each emirate, among others.


The Emirates Schools Establishment is currently responsible for the implementation of the standards in public school canteens. The Establishment reviews the school meal programme menus each year and collects food samples to ensure that the catering companies are meeting the standards. The Establishment uses nutritionists to conduct meetings, training and monitoring visits to catering companies to keep improving the quality of the food provided to schools.

However, given the low compliance rates observed through monitoring visits, the Ministry of Education plans to organize training for catering companies, starting with an initial assessment with caterers to better understand the challenges in providing nutritious school meals.


Monitoring and Evaluation

The Emirates Schools Establishment has a team of inspectors that monitor compliance with the standards through random inspections in public schools, mostly to monitor food safety aspects but also to identify variations from required meal modalities. Every term, an online survey is carried out to get feedback from students, parents and school principals. The Emirates Schools Establishment is also developing software to gather data on school food consumption among schoolchildren.

Various Emirates have formed a committee to monitor the implementation of the standards, while others do not have jurisdiction over private schools, so each one has a different monitoring system as well as specific penalties. Part of the Ministry of Education’s task force plan is to better understand each monitoring system to enable an exchange of experiences and lessons learned among the different regions, with the aim of developing a common monitoring and evaluation system across the country.

School staff are responsible for monitoring compliance with the guidelines on foods brought from home.

Go to the Summary of the Standards

School-Based Food and Nutrition Education

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