When the Government, inspired by TV chef Jamie Oliver, rolled out new healthy-eating policies two years ago, take-up of school meals fell - much to everyone's embarrassment. Habits were so ingrained that it was clear pupils weren't going to suddenly replace chocolate bars with apples overnight.
But thanks to a huge government campaign, supported by funding to enable schools without cooking facilities to build their own kitchens, primaries are now seeing increased take-up of healthy school meals, while in secondary schools decline is slowing.
Figures for 20078 showed 43.6 per cent of primary pupils ate school dinners, up from 41.3 per cent the previous year. But just 37.2 per cent of their secondary counterparts did so, down half a percentage point from 20067.
Last week, phase two of the Government's healthy meals drive came into force, with new nutritional standards for primary school dinners, billed by ministers as the toughest in the world.
Ed Balls, the Children, Schools and Families' Secretary, wants schools to combat the drop-off at secondary level by copying the solutions offered by the "best". They include:
- staggering lunch breaks;
- using swipe card systems or letting pupils pre-book lunches online to cut queues;
- younger children eating separately from older pupils;
- adopting stay-on-site policies;
- replacing ugly, plastic compartmentalised food trays with proper china and cutlery;
- marketing healthy lunches to pupils' families
- involving young people in drawing up menus.
The new standards, which will be extended to secondaries next year, stipulate the maximum or minimum content of 14 nutrients including saturated fat, salt, iron and vitamins in individual school dinners.
Mr Balls said he understood schools' concerns that the standards were challenging to introduce, but made no apologies for them being that way. He said society had to stop the rise in child obesity and unhealthy eating.
A School Food Trust survey in January showed that half of England's 17,500 primary schools had implemented the nutritional standards nine months early.
Judy Hargadon, chief executive of the government-backed trust, says there has been a "huge change" in school eating habits. "Children are beginning to see it's OK and it's fun to eat healthily," she said.
The Turkey Twizzler is a thing of the past in school canteens. While pizza and burgers have not disappeared altogether, Neil Porter, chief executive of the Local Authority Caterers Association, which supplies 90 per cent of LEA meals, said healthier roast meat and vegetable meals are now the most popular.
"Parents also perceive them as value for money," he said.
Mr Porter predicts the old cafe-teria-style pick-and-mix will decline in favour of properly balanced "meal deals" which include fruit, a pudding and a healthy drink. But getting children to eat healthily may still take time. "It will take five to 10 years," he said.
Some schools are already seeing changing tastes among younger pupils, however. The number of times chips and fatty foods are served during the week has declined, while fizzy drinks are virtually banned.
The schools most successful in changing habits are not just focusing on food.
"The single most important thing a head can do is see the meal experience through the eyes of a child," said Ms Hargadon, who advises school leaders to "go and eat in the school dining-room for two weeks".
Jackie Schneider, of the pressure group Merton Parents for Better Food in Schools, said: "If you change the atmosphere and tone of the eating environment, children are going to spend a little longer at the meal, and they are likely to be braver about trying new things.
"Where heads have done it, they have really reaped rewards."
Professor Jack Winkler, of London Metropolitan University's nutrition policy unit, found school mealtimes were stressful.
"Canteens are so small pupils have to queue a long time, sometimes twice - once to pay and once to get the food," he said.
"The children queue in the corridor where there is a lot of noise. And when you get to the head of the queue, there is nowhere to sit.
"So it's not because of the food that they won't eat school meals, it's the canteen and the way the meals are organised."
Many schools built in the 1980s have the capacity to feed only 10 per cent of the school. In Hampshire, 60 out of 71 schools have no canteens at all. "Newer schools are better," said Professor Winkler.
In secondary schools, pupils voted with their feet and went to takeaways in the vicinity.
Even in primary, pupils have a choice. Ms Hargadon said: "The problem now is more about how packed lunches are less healthy, and how to get more pupils eating school dinners."
Heads are reluctant to police pupils' lunchboxes. The best solution is to make school dinners so attractive, they won't bring fatty snacks from home.
Most heads do not want to enforce an eat-on-site policy, but, said Neil Porter, "Pupils do have freedom of choice and so the school cannot wash its hands of what is going on."
"Heads should try to encourage pupils to stay on site. The school meal ought to be treated as the ninth lesson, not a half-hour break some time during the day."
The more pupils eat in school, the easier it will be to provide cheap healthy meals.
Ms Schneider said: "We want to boost the numbers taking school dinners, not because we care about the caterers' profits but because the economies of scale mean good meals are not so expensive.
"We have said to heads that even if they can't solve the problem overnight, if you work out a plan then in four years' time there will be improvements."
Some heads have brought school meals in-house. They have intervened to bring kitchen facilities and decent canteen areas into rebuilding or refurbishing plans. Others have negotiated local authority grants to improve facilities.
At St Aidan's High School, a 2000-pupil comprehensive in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, deputy head Stephen Hatcher opted out of contract catering almost nine years ago. "I did not want to be party to a generation with a lower life expectancy than my own," he said.
The school now employs three full-time chefs and 10 staff, providing a choice of 10 freshly made dishes a day.
"We serve chips once a week but there is no difference between take-up on that day and any others," Mr Hatcher said. "The children appreciate the quality and variety of food, and they are calmer and more alert in their lessons, particularly in the afternoons."
More than 95 per cent of pupils at St Aidan's eat healthy school meals, in four pleasant dining areas. Even pupils in the vast 800-plus sixth form, who are allowed to eat out, choose to eat in school.
"We charge less than other North Yorkshire schools because we do not have to make a profit," said Mr Hatcher. "We are able to plough dinner money into quality raw materials and staff."
Even a small school such as St Peter's, a 200-pupil primary in East Bridgford, Nottinghamshire, finds it worthwhile bringing school meals in- house, prepared in its own kitchens by a full-time cook.
"It allows greater control over the content of meals," said David Maddison, the head. And pupils have also become more sophisticated in their tastes.
"Successfully improving a school's food culture helps to improve a school's effectiveness as a whole," he said.
There are other spin-offs to having in-house cooks. At St Aidan's, catering apprenticeships with the three full-time professional chefs and baker are among the most popular in the school. The chefs also conduct masterclasses for food technology students.
These heads don't have to lecture or cajole pupils about healthy food. "Children are always hungry if the food is decent," said Mr Hatcher.
`Pupils have time to enjoy their food'
More than 95 per cent of pupils eat healthy school meals in the new bistro-style dining area at Maybury Primary School in Hull (pictured top). Parents and grandparents can join the children for a free meal, alongside teachers and other staff.
Chef Garry Robinson prepares fresh meals from scratch in the school kitchens. "It is vital to make sure your food looks attractive and appealing," he said.
Children can watch Mr Robinson preparing the meals, which encourages them to try out new things. "The dining room is part of the school ethos and it is the norm to eat a school dinner at Maybury," he said.
Headteacher Claire Patton said: "The chef is part of the school, he is not just in the kitchen. We hear stories from the children about how they pressure their parents into allowing them to have school meals rather than a packed lunch."
Ms Patton was impressed by the way things were done in Sweden, after a study tour there. "We have tried to adopt the Swedish model, where children have time to sit down and enjoy their food," she said. "They have no concept in Sweden of packed lunches. Lunchtime is part of the school curriculum where they learn social etiquette."
She added: "Previously we had so many problems at lunchtime with behaviour, and children not concentrating during class. Now they eat, play and learn calmly."
Beefburgers are served, but they are home-made. The favourite meal is roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. A buffet salad bar is also available.
New standards of nutrition
The new School Food Trust nutrient standards are being introduced in primary schools this month, and secondaries in September 2009.
They set out minimum levels of carbohydrate, protein, fibre, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, calcium, iron and zinc that each school dinner must contain.
Maximum levels are given for non-milk extrinsic (NME) sugars, fat, saturated fat and sodium.
The trust recommends that primary school dinners should be 530 calories - plus or minus 5 per cent (26.5 calories) and secondary dinners 646 calories - plus or minus 5 per cent (32.3 calories).