New food standards outlining what schools can dish up to their students were unveiled by the government today.
The guidelines, which come into force in January 2015, are designed to make the system more straightforward and allow school cooks to be more creative and respond to what children want to eat.
The requirement to provide at least one portion of vegetables or salad every day and one portion of fruit, no extra salt and free, fresh drinking water has not changed from the current requirements.
But there will no longer be separate nutrient-based standards, which currently set out the levels of specific nutrients such as iron or zinc, which must be incorporated into the lunch menu.
Henry Dimbleby, one of the authors of the School Food Plan, said: “The previous standards did a lot of good in removing the worst foods from children’s diets. But when we were writing the School Food plan we met lots of wonderful cooks who felt restricted by them.
“There was a very talented Asian cook, for example, who was exasperated at having to follow the council’s three week menu plan of shepherd’s pie and fish and chips, when her pupils – most of whom were also Asian – would have much preferred naan bread and a curry.
“These standards will preserve the nutritional gains that have already been made in school food, while allowing greater flexibility.”
Working out the nutritional content of planned lunch menus is done by caterers themselves. The School Food Plan pointed out this could cost £9,000 for a local authority wanting to analyse the meals for all its schools, or £20 per recipe for individual schools.
Jamie Oliver (pictured), who set a new record for the world’s largest cooking lesson with TES Connect last month, welcomed the new standards.
He said: “Anything which makes it easier for school cooks to get tastier, nutritious food on the plate at school lunch time has to be welcomed and the new School Food Standards guide does that.
"There's also built-in flexibility which is massively important. School cooks are on the frontline in the fight against diet-related disease in my view so it's vital that they get support. For me, these mandatory minimum standards are so important if we're going to truly protect the next generation."
While academies created from June 2014 will have to meet the new standards, academies which were set up between 2010 and 2014 have been asked to sign up voluntarily.
The announcement comes as a poll from The Key, a guidance service for school leaders, found two in five primary heads are worried about the cost of introducing universal free school meals for 5-7 year-olds in September.
Two major concerns are the cost of implementation and concerns that their pupil premium money will be reduced as it is based on numbers claiming free school meals.
Fergal Roche, chief executive officer of The Key, said: “The challenge for school leaders is to make sure that families eligible for free school meals keep claiming, as universal free school meals might mean that they feel less inclined to do so.
"This could, in due course, have a severe impact on a school’s funding. Schools could provide free school meals registration forms as part of the universal meals enrolment process.”
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “Heads are figuring out ways of delivering free school meals but they are still very worried that if parents get meals for free it reduces the incentive to register for them. There is a very significant sum of money riding on that."
David Laws: ‘Why I believe in universal free school meals’ 24 May 2014
A real-life supper hero 24 April 2014