School lunchtime should be a social event, not just a functional feeding opportunity, say children.
Jo Pike, a researcher at Hull University, asked primary pupils what they like and dislike about eating in school. She found their preferences have often been overshadowed by adult preoccupation with nutrition.
Few children referred to food when discussing their priorities. Instead, they spoke about the social elements. Many felt it was important to be dining with friends, as this created a sense of safety.
"Sometimes I feel all right, when I'm sat with all my friends, because nobody can start picking on you," said Rachel, a Year 6 pupil.
Most children also used mealtime to decide which games to play in the playground later, or make after-school social arrangements.
"It can be quite devastating for children if they get sent to the back of the lunch queue," said Ms Pike. "They don't get out to play at the same time as their friends. And it also affects after-school socialising."
Enjoyment of lunch can also be limited by the layout of the room. Older children told Ms Pike that they preferred Starbucks-like sofas to formal rows of tables.
Kelly, a Year 5 pupil, complained of the unfairness of seating determined by age: her brother is not allowed to sit with her because he is several years younger.
Dining room displays of pupils' work help give a sense of ownership of the eating space. Such displays should be changed regularly.
But pupils welcomed a teacher presence. "The lack of rules and structure at lunchtime can be intimidating," said Ms Pike. "So an adult presence is really important."
She believes pupils' perspectives are often overlooked. Too often, they are seen as objects of the lunchtime process, rather than as active consumers, she said.
Exploring children's perceptions of lunchtime at primary school, by Jo Pike, Hull University.