It costs a lot to make a chip in the shape of a duck-billed platypus...

23rd February 2001 at 00:00
....but children won't eat unless we make it fun for them

Stay for school dinner these days, and you'd be forgiven for thinking that children won't eat pieces of chicken unless they're shaped like rocket ships, or potatoes that aren't cut into noughts and crosses. Yes, it costs a great deal more to make a chip in the shape of a duck-billed platypus, and yes it keeps costs down if portions are smaller. and yes, parents do complain more than they used to. but then, people complain more about everything these days, and we all know children simply won't eat anything unless we make it fun for them.

School dinners were truly awful when I was a pimply teenager. The diet was invariably potatoes, meat and greens, with mashed potato so solid it had to be forcibly ejected from the ladle by a strong flick of the cook's (I use the term loosely) wrist. School dinners didn't improve much for years, but I knew I was on to a winner shortly after I got my headship and tasted Mrs Stone's Thursday roasts. She'd been at the school for years and ruled her kitchen with a rod of iron. Children needed exercise and good food, she said, particularly the latter, and she gave them the finest meals she could muster, every day of every term, always with fresh ingredients.

She was never away, and if it snowed and the trains weren't running, she'd rise at dawn and walk, expecting her kitchen staff to do the same. She brooked no nonsense; if her fridge had packed up and the LEA engineers had promised to arrive the same day, then that's what they had to do or their ears would burn from the telephone drubbing they received. She always enjoyed telling me how she'd got the better of an inefficient official, and she'd summon Pat and Doris to the kitchen door to listen as wll.

"I told him that tap had been dripping for two hours too long, and he'd better get a plumber here by yesterday, didn't I Pat? Didn't I Doris?" "You did, Cook," they'd chorus in unison.

"And he was down within the hour, wasn't he Pat? Wasn't he Doris?" "He was, Cook," they'd confirm.

Years after she'd retired, I met her in the deli department at Tesco. She asked how things were and what sort of meals the children now ate. I hardly dared tell her that outside caterers had taken over and there was an entirely new slant on eating.

Above the serving hatch there's now a mission statement, a philosophical culinary tract that few children have read and fewer understand. Every few weeks, in the desire to show how much "fun" eating can be, there's a quiz, colouring competition or event, which is how, because I always eat with the children, I discovered a sticker on the back of my chair.

Anyone finding a sticker is eligible for a prize, a rather tatty bookmark, forgotten in moments and left lying around the hall. Instead of plates we have aircraft trays containing both courses and they're stackable for convenience - although this stackability is dependent on the children matching the shapes and not stacking them the wrong way round, in which case the whole pile crashes to the ground. They crash frequently.

Back in the days of Mrs Stone, not a single child brought a packed lunch to school and nobody ever complained of our meals not being plentiful and nutritious. Today, more than half my children bring packed lunches, often two bags of crisps, a chocolate bar and a sugary drink.

Progress? Mrs Stone would have a fit.

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, Camberwell, south LondonEmail:

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