When I was a child in the 1980s, it was compulsory to hate school food. But when I look back, I wonder what we were complaining about, because it was pretty amazing: huge portions of comfort food with a wide selection of fruit and veg, topped off by the sort of puddings that dreams are made of.
I started to work in schools about 15 years ago and hadn’t expected school meals to have changed. Sadly, they had. It was the height of the processed school food trend and Jamie Oliver had yet to charge in, spatulas blazing, and cast out Turkey Twizzlers in favour of fresh, nutritious food. I’d been shocked at the rubbish that pupils were eating and so welcomed that change with open arms.
Since then, the most prominent change to have been made to school meals is that all children in Reception and key stage 1 are entitled to eat for free. This is a wonderful initiative which ensures all children have access to a hot meal every day and should mean that our pupils are able to concentrate better in the afternoons on a full stomach.
But is it working? Not as well as we’d hoped, say various parents and teachers.
Here are some common issues:
What's wrong with school dinners?
The kids don’t like the food
Those Turkey Twizzlers and spaghetti hoops looked disgusting to me, but I have to admit that I’ve never seen so many clean plates in the dining hall as I did back then. The current school meals may be healthy, but that’s no good if the kids won’t eat them:
“Our area do an amazing and varied menu, exploring world foods and themes…which my kids hate,” says one parent from Birmingham, who wishes to remain anonymous. “Just last week I had to collect my sleeping five-year-old at 2.30 in the afternoon because she was exhausted, having eaten nothing during the day.”
This is a common complaint. In some schools, nobody seems to police how much pupils are eating, which can lead to untouched school dinners being scraped into the bin and an afternoon slump for hungry children.
Overzealous lunchtime staff
Some lunchtime staff are absolutely brilliant. Others, however, clearly need more training and support from schools.
“My son asked for sausage but the midday supervisor gave him chicken instead,” complains a parent from Hampshire. “He doesn’t like chicken so wouldn’t eat it, and she wouldn’t let him go out to play until he did. Stalemate.”
This is the opposite problem of the above: forcing children to eat food that they genuinely dislike. This can lead to resentment and possibly even lifelong issues with food.
“The dinner ladies bellow at the children. My son has sensory processing issues and finds the shouting in the dinner hall too much,” complains the parent from Birmingham.
And a secondary school teacher from Lincolnshire agrees:
“Some adults who aren’t teachers seem to think that shouting at children is the best way to achieve results and it really isn’t.”
This is almost certainly the fault of a lack of training, not the lunchtime staff. Do we share CPD with lunchtime staff enough in schools?
It is not uncommon for schools to ban crisps, biscuits and any other form of processed sugar in lunch boxes, yet the children who have school dinners end each meal with a giant slab of cake. Surely that can’t be fair? Either relax the rules for packed lunches or only provide fruit for dessert with school meals. Which leads me to…
Yet other schools don’t provide a dessert. What horror is this? A generation of children is being deprived of treacle sponge and custard and rice crispy cakes with a blob of squirty cream on top.
Are the meals really that healthy anyway?
Today, my son’s school menu consists of lasagne with garlic bread and veg, fruit and an oat cookie. There’s nothing wrong with that. Until you realise that some kids won’t eat the lasagne, will choose sweetcorn as their "vegetable" (not a lot of vitamins in that) and will ignore the optional fruit, leading to them eating a piece of garlic bread, approximately five kernels of sweetcorn and a cookie for lunch. It’s a nutritionally-balanced menu with good meal choices, but the health benefits are only there for the children who will actually eat the full meal.
Running out of food
Another issue is the kitchen running out of the most popular menu choices. “My daughter’s school regularly runs out of food by the time Year 6 get served,” says one angry parent from Worcestershire. “We pay for school meals but there’s nothing left for them! It’s a joke!”
Some schools deal with demand by taking lunch orders at registration and giving children coloured bands to wear to denote what they have chosen to ensure that nobody changes their mind when they see the food.
So, is there an answer to our issues with school dinners? Are the free school meals benefiting our pupils? Nothing is as clear as I’d first thought – except for the bit about puddings: treacle sponge needs to be reinstated ASAP.
Lisa Jarmin is a teacher and freelance writer