Litter-strewn school canteens with fixed seating and disposable cutlery are responsible for putting more pupils off school meals than the unappetising, overpriced food they serve, according to new research.
Interviews with 100 pupils, conducted by the School Food Trust, reveal that the key factor influencing pupils' uptake of school meals is the quality of the dining room.
"One-room canteens, especially dual-purpose halls, tend to create a frenetic melting pot of pupils," the researchers said.
"Young people often feel the canteen atmosphere and environment is unwelcoming and uninspiring: overcrowded, noisy, chaotic, and unhygienic, with litter and food mess."
Such problems were often self-perpetuating: the pupils openly admitted they were less likely to treat the canteen with respect when they felt little effort or investment had been put into it by the school.
But, the researchers said, much of the fault lay with the schools. Fixed seating, and long benches in particular, created an institution-like atmosphere that did not allow for any teenage expression of identity. Similarly, pupils were often worried that limited, inflexible seating would mean that they were split up from their friends during lunch-break.
Meanwhile, many pupils complained about lengthy, disorganised queues: they were anxious that the canteen would run out of their first-choice meal before they reached the front. Others pointed out that queues provided an easy opportunity for bullying, stealing and intimidation.
In addition, the pupils added, school meals were rarely worth the effort: the food on offer was usually more expensive, but less appealing, than that served in nearby shops and fast-food restaurants.
Judy Hargadon, chief executive of the School Food Trust, believes that in the Jamie Oliver-led battle to improve school food the inhospitable battleground was overlooked.
"Children get so much choice on the high street they now expect that everywhere in their lives," she said.
"They're the customer. You have to market to them in the same way that people on the high street do."
Schools that open branded franchises on their premises always do swift business with teenagers, researchers said.
Similarly, they recommended that food choices should be indicated on a menu and served on real crockery. Bright, well-chosen decor should be used to delineate different types of food on offer, such as light snacks or hot meals.
And Ms Hargadon stresses the importance of consulting pupils. "Some people like to eat in a rush and move on. Some want to sit and chat," she said. "Older children want different things from younger ones.
"We became so determined to get the food right, we didn't realise how significant the experience was. It's about recognising that when you eat a meal it isn't just about what you put in your mouth."
- The research forms part of a campaign, launched this week, to help schools improve the popularity of their meals. It will offer five schools the chance to win a dining-room makeover.