Fatty and sugary processed foods served in schools are to be targeted in the latest attempt to encourage pupils into healthy eating regimes.
Beef burgers, sausages and cakes are among the foods to be tackled under new government guidelines on the nutritional value of processed foods served in schools.
The tightening of the rules will not mean that unhealthy choices are taken off menus completely. But the fat, sugar and salt content of lunchtime fare should be reduced.
Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education, also announced that parents will have more say on the quality of food being served to their children. The food industry, schools and nutritionists will also be consulted on what should be included on school menus.
"Parents want to know that when children are eating school meals they are getting the quality of what they would serve at home," Ms Kelly said yesterday. "I want parents to become more involved in schools, not only in the quality of education, but in everything that their child experiences within the school gates - including what they eat.
"We have already set down minimum standards for school dinners, but they are just that - a minimum. We are now working to raise the bar and support schools and parents to improve school meals ahead of the introduction of comprehensive, tougher standards next year."
The announcement came amid concerns over rising rates of obesity among children. Specialists have predicted that if the trend continues, at least half of children in England could be classed as obese by 2020.
But the Local Authority Caterers Association (Laca), the country's largest network of school-meal providers, warned that rapid improvements in food quality would be impossible without extra government funding for school meals. According to a survey by Laca, the average cost of a school dinner in England is £1.37.
"No matter how much effort and collaboration takes place in schools, the real improvements to food standards being called for will not be achievable without a major injection of hard cash," said Neil Porter, national chairman of Laca.
However, the Soil Association has calculated that the Government spends 35p a head on school food compared to 60p on prison food. Peter Melchett, the association's policy director, welcomed the announcement but called for more money to be spent on school dinners.
"There is still a long way to go," he said. "The Government still needs to be clear what additional money they will provide to schools to allow them to serve healthy meals. And for meals to be truly healthy and sustainable, all schools should be sourcing local, unprocessed and, where possible, organic food."
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, warned the Government not to rely on parents to improve the diets of their children. "I question Ruth Kelly's assumption that the majority of students eat healthier, better-quality meals at home," he said. "Far too many families provide poor diets for their children."
Tim Collins, the Tory spokes-man on education, described the attempt to involve parents as "beyond parody". He said: "Labour won't let you choose your child's school, but they want you to join a committee to discuss their school dinners."
The origins of school meals can be traced to the work of charities in the mid 19th century. But it was not until the 1944 Education Act that local authorities had a statutory duty to provide school meals.
In 2001 the Government reintroduced minimum standards for school lunches, the first for 20 years. These required that red meat must be served at least three times a week and fish at least twice. However, they said nothing about the quality or quantity of the meat and fish, and did not set limits on fat or salt content. The Government then promised "tougher minimum standards" from 2006, but yesterday's announcement represents a more rapid crackdown on processed foods.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE PRUNES AND BOILED CABBAGE?
MENUS THROUGH THE DECADES
* Fish and tomato casserole, with boiled potatoes and processed peas
* Prunes and custard
* Shepherd's pie with carrots and boiled cabbage
* Steamed chocolate pudding with chocolate sauce
* Pizza with chips and coleslaw
* Fruit jelly and cream
* Chicken dinosaurs, chips and beans
* Vegetarian pasta bake
* Jacket potato
* Cheese and egg salad
* Strawberry mousse or fresh fruit pot or yoghurt
* Roast chicken with chipolata, roast or boiled potatoes and broccoli or peas
* Roast lentil layer with roast or boiled potatoes and peas
* Packed lunch option: egg and cheese petit pain; apple juice; fresh fruit cup and biscuits
* Jacket potato with ham and coleslaw, with vegetables or salad
* Egg and cheese salad
* Chocolate and orange sponge with vanilla sauce
* Fresh fruit cup
* Fruit juice and biscuit
* Milk and biscuit
Source: Local Authority Caterers Association
Jilly Cooper: "My favourite dish at my first school was orange jelly, which was heavenly. One day a bomb shattered the school's windows and glass ended up in my jelly. I was more upset about the jelly than the bomb. When I went to boarding school the food was excellent. The meals were very starchy; shepherd's pie, apple charlotte and jam roly-poly."
Matthew Parris: "My main memory of primary school is of scores of tiny bottles of milk lined up each day which nobody ever drank and we all poured away. Later, after living abroad I returned to Britain to work for Margaret Thatcher and everyone was deriding her for ending free school milk, but I knew she was right."
Stephen Fry: "I went to a very posh public school and I remember the intolerable snobbery when we ran out of water in the table jugs. We would raise our hands so that the 'skivvy' would come to refill them. We called the meals 'school lunches' rather than school dinners, because dinner was the meal eaten in the evening."Reuse content