Dishing up life lessons in the dining hall

16th October 2015 at 00:00
Social skills, table manners and knowledge of food are all built at school, so show primary pupils that learning doesn’t stop at lunch

With a results-driven primary agenda focusing on academic rigour in the classroom, other parts of the school day can get ignored. Dining halls and playgrounds are two of the things that fall into that category.

Universal infant free school meals have brought this issue to a head. Everyone is trying to get too many children through the hall in too little time. Many headteachers or senior managers have to stand in the hall for the duration of break. Teachers, meanwhile, try to catch up on other tasks at lunchtime, so they often come out late to pick up the children. There is no whole-school dining hall policy for lunchtimes.

If done well, lunchtimes provide a unique opportunity for learning essential life lessons, such as social skills, dining skills, table manners and food education. So how do you do it well? Here are three ideas:

1 Involve everyone

Your school will already have key moral values such as respect for physical safety, emotional safety, the truth, property, each other and yourselves. These rules need to be adapted to create a set of dining hall rules which are discussed in assemblies, in the classroom and with parents. Midday and catering staff should be involved, too.

Once children are familiar with the rules, choose one as the “target rule of the week”. For example, if food is left on the tables and floor then your target rule for the week would be “we keep our tables and the space underneath our tables clean”.

Introduce a golden raffle ticket system where, with a great flourish, a lunchtime supervisor hands a few golden raffle tickets to the children who best support this rule.

The children take these tickets to their teacher, who puts a marble in the class “jar of good choices”. When the jar is full of marbles then a class treat is in order. This could be anything that motivates the students, such as extra fun games or activities, or whatever that particular class would value and love.

Some supervisors will also have a secret “target of the week” and when they spot children doing it they quietly whisper thanks and give them a ticket.

2 Lay a ‘golden table’

A “golden table of the week” can be set up to reward children who have behaved well in the dining hall. Set it with a golden tablecloth, place mats, plastic golden goblets, flowers, napkins and invite parents, grandparents, staff or just their best friends to join them.

There is something wonderful about watching generations sit round a table eating and talking calmly with each other. Because the table is golden, children’s eyes are drawn to it and they see the meal as an important social function. In many cases it’s far removed from the quick television suppers they’re used to.

3 Make lunchtimes special

I have met some amazing dining hall staff, unit catering managers, midday supervisors and assistants who make the dining experience fun in many ways. Here are a few of their ideas:

Subject-themed lunches, such as history or science;

Dress-up-for-lunch days involving staff and/or students;

International menu days celebrating different cultures;

Food allergy awareness days;

Favourite food days – pupils vote for their favourite meals;


Decorating the service area; and

Gold awards and prizes for good eating.

Jenny Mosley is a teacher and education consultant. Her book How to Create Calm Dining Halls is available now from Positive Press. For more ideas, visit

What else?

Encourage lively dinner conversation with these “chatter mats”.

A Teachers’ TV video on instigating active lunchtimes.

Read a report on supporting

school improvement through breaktime play.

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