Free school meals are good, but healthy, well-served free school meals are even better

If we want more children eating in our canteens, schools have got to have the infrastructure to serve them well and headteachers must get on board


Putting the debate about universality aside for one moment (and there’s a lot of it today), if we’re going to offer free school meals for all under-eights, there’s a crucial point that isn’t getting much of a look-in. To make this work well; to make sure we actually reap all the benefits of what good food at school can do for children’s attainment and diet, the school meal experience has got to be a good one. If we want all families to take this up, and not simply stick with the same packed lunch every day, the lunchtime their school offers has to be one they want their kids to have.

Lots of schools are doing a great job already: the number of families opting for school meals has been rising, thanks to the hard work since Jamie Oliver’s manifesto, the rollout of national school food standards and more support to help schools up their game.  

But some are still struggling, as the new national School Food Plan highlighted in July. They still need help to get their lunchtimes to where they need to be. So what will make sure this policy delivers?

It’s about good food, first and foremost. Meals that taste good; look good and smell good. Sounds obvious, but it’s still a challenge for some schools, even despite the improvements of the last eight years. And that’s got to be underpinned by decent kitchen facilities - so staff can deliver that great food efficiently. Not all primary schools have their own kitchens, and most of the schools who come to us for help are having problems with ageing equipment or kitchens which are too small or poorly laid-out. If we want more children eating in our canteens, schools have got to have the infrastructure to serve them well.

It’s about a pleasant place to eat. Research shows that what’s often more important to children is where they eat, rather than what they eat. Put another way, if they have to queue for their meal or have to sit around a cramped table, or if the dining room’s a noisy, smelly place, they simply won’t want to eat there. And with more children likely to be taking up school meals if they’re free, space will be a fundamental issue. Schools will need help to get creative - there are ways to create a great dining space and accommodate more children without spending a lot, but it takes thought and planning.

It’s about giving kids enough time to eat rather than having to rush their meal. Research has found that nearly a quarter of teachers across all schools (23 per cent) had seen lunchtime get shorter at their school in the last few years. You can understand the dilemma for a seven year-old: waiting ten minutes longer to eat by queuing up for a healthy school meal, or getting ten minutes more in the playground by wolfing down a quick sarnie from home – no contest. The youngest children often need more time to get through their food, so helping schools make their dining spaces work better and to use pre-ordering systems will be vital. 

But the yeast in this dough isn’t a something, it’s a someone: the headteacher. As the School Food Plan noted: “….if the head isn’t behind changing the food culture in a school, it won’t happen.” Families will only take up these free school meals if the experience on offer is a good one; creating that experience starts with supporting headteachers.

Linda Cregan is Chief Executive of the Children’s Food Trust  

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Website Editor

£15 - £17 Per Hour: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently r...

Primary Supply teaching jobs in Stowmarket

£21552 - £31588 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

Year 1 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Birmingham: The Job An inner city Birmingham sc...

Year 2 Teacher - Maternity cover

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Year 2 maternity cover, startin...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Young Syrian refugees gather around a small fire at the Minieh camp in Lebanon  

Cameron and Obama may want to ‘destroy’ Isis, but what will they do about the growing number of refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria?

Kate Allen
“You're running away!” Nick said to me the other night as I tried to leave the hospital  

In Sickness and in Health: ‘There’s nothing I want more than to have you at home, but you’re not well’

Rebecca Armstrong
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments