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Improving Uptake Of School Dinners


Improving uptake of school dinners

Back in 2005, when Jamie Oliver alerted the nation to the horrors of the ‘turkey twizzler’, it was apparent that not all dinners served at school were the good, nutritious and interesting meals they ought to be.

It was a bit of a wake-up call, but one which made school meals providers assess what was going onto children’s plates and into their bellies – and resulted in improvements in quality and nutritional value.

The work continued and in July 2013, the Department for Education introduced its School Food Plan, which basically states that food served in schools and academies in England must meet the school food standards so that children have healthy, balanced diets. The standards became mandatory in January 2015 and apply to all maintained schools, academies and free schools.

A checklist for school lunches can be downloaded here:

The scheme is supported by the Secretary of State for Education and many diverse organisations keen to help head teachers to improve food in their schools.

Meeting these standards means your school lunches:

  • will be healthy, balanced and nutritious
  • provide your pupils with the energy and nutrients they need to do well at school
  • will help children to develop healthy eating habits

Kids won’t eat school dinners!

Many schools already do a fantastic job, but still fewer than half the school children in the UK eat a school lunch. Some eat the snack foods such as pizza, panini and cake that they buy at mid-morning break, others go off-site at lunch time to buy whatever they fancy – usually junk food. Some bring packed lunches from home, but only 1% of packed lunches meet the same nutrition standards that apply to school meals.

So what’s stopping children eating school meals?

Well sadly, sometimes it’s down to the quality of the food. Children’s appetites aren’t stimulated by beige and tasteless meals. They need a variety of tasty, colourful dishes, with different textures, shapes and sizes, and to be able to try small portions of everything.

What can be done?

The higher numbers of children eating school meals, the more cost-effective it is for the school – an average uptake of 50% is needed to break even, otherwise the meals have to be subsidised from school budgets. And providing a wide variety of good quality food doesn’t mean adding cost. If food looks and tastes good, the uptake increases, the waste decreases and costs are easier to control.

The standards require schools meals to always provide:

•          High-quality meat, poultry or oily fish

•          Fruit and vegetables

•          Bread, other cereals and potatoes

And theses should be the basis for introducing good quality, inexpensive food to stimulate the fussiest eaters and encouraging more children to take school dinners.

Starchy foods are vital for energy and fibre, which is why the standards state at least one portion must be provided every day. It’s a wide food group, so it should be relatively easy to include the required minimum of 3 different types every week. Potatoes, pasta and rice are the staples, but how about couscous or bulgar wheat as part of a substantial salad, or sweet potato mixed with ordinary mash to give it a brighter colour? Noodles are another great starchy food, popular with children and fun (if a bit messy) to eat. Since bread has to be available every day, why not offer chapattis, pitta or naan, instead of just plain sliced?

Colourful fruit and vegetables also boost fibre and are an excellent source of vital vitamins A and C. There’s already a massive variety available year-round, especially since the standards encourage school caterers to use frozen canned and juiced products as well as fresh fruit and vegetables.  Pulses such as lentils and beans are included in the category and fruit-based puddings (as long as they consist of 50% fruit) such as pies and crumbles also count.

Proteins – whether meat, fish, eggs, pulses or non-dairy – provide essential amino acids and minerals such as iron and zinc. Encourage children to eat a wide variety of protein-based foods by offering choices of meat, poultry, fish (fresh, frozen and canned), and eggs. Meat alternatives such as Quorn™ or pulses including cannellini, kidney, pinto, borlotti, haricot or butter (but not green) beans may be more popular with children who don’t like the texture of meat or who are vegetarian, as well as dishes based on chickpeas and lentils. Nuts too are a good protein source, but be aware of allergies.

Meat products popular with children include sausages, burgers, pies and pasties and breaded products, such as nuggets. These can be included, although they must be limited to 2 portions of pastry dishes per week. Similarly, batter or bread-coated deep-fried products are also restricted to 2 per week. It does mean that one very child-friendly product can be on the menu 4 days out of the 5 school days every week – and that might just be great way of encouraging more children to take up school dinners.

As we work closely with many school caterers, the Total Foodservice team prides itself on being able to supply a wide range of products to meet the requirements of the school food standards. We’re pleased to announce the launch of 2 new products, developed in conjunction with the Soil Association’s Food for Life scheme – the Proper Cornish company’s School Range Cornish pasty and sausage roll. Both are ready-to-bake and adhere to the school standards guidelines. They’re ideal for either a hand-held mid-morning snack or as a plated lunch with vegetables. We’re sure they’ll be very popular!


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