ALISON FINNIE was one of five school cooks from Scotland who met Prince Charles yesterday and shared secrets about persuading sceptical pupils to eat healthily.
She was chosen to take part in the Best of School Cooks event in London, after take-up of school lunches at the 63-pupil Auchna-gatt Primary in Aberdeenshire rose by 25 per cent, mere months after she started there in October 2005.
The encouragement of healthy eating, she stresses, becomes easier if children themselves are involved in the process. Pupils, therefore, have helped develop a balanced menu and given the dining hall a make-over.
Finnie's Fine Fare, they decided, was an appropriate name for a setting that is considerably more social than the traditional image of children trudging in line for dollops of unidentifiable gloop.
Older and younger pupils are encouraged to sit together in the same seats for weeks at a time, and the best behaved table gets to choose background music. This reinvention of school dinners as social dining is further enhanced by a sign inviting children to make "reservations" (buy meal tickets) from Mrs Finnie.
She also gets children to think about where food comes from. A gardening club is being put to-gether so that pupils can eat vegetables they have cultivated, while P1-3 have assembled pizzas. "They were surprised to see all the ingredients," said Mrs Finnie. "I think they assumed pizza came from a packet."
She ensures that bags of individual vegetables are passed round every lunchtime, with a choice of sliced cucumber, peppers, cherry tomatoes or carrot sticks. "They prefer it to a bowl of salad, because if they don't like something, they won't eat any of it - they don't pick out the things they like."
While Mrs Finnie is modest about her work, head Fiona Ross is less reserved. "Children have benefited in their behaviour, their enthusiasm and ability to take part in sport," she said. "Because of Alison, they've tried to improve the quality of their eating experience."
Scotland's other commended school cooks are: Margaret Mc-Garry, St Mary's Primary, Dun-tocher, Clydebank; Agnes Lafferty, Eastbank Primary, Glasgow; Cath-leen Henderson, Bathgate Acad-emy; Anne Ruxton, Westfield School, Fraserburgh.