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Helping boarders feel at home

Kevin Hopper says caterers can make life at school a great experience for students who also call it home

Posted by Hannah Oakman | March 19, 2016 | Catering & hospitality

For independent schools with boarders, the day doesn’t end with the last class or after school activity. These schools must provide a whole range of additional activities and pastoral support to ensure boarding students feel that school is a home away from home. And with students taking all their meals at school, offering delicious food that they enjoy eating can have a significant influence on how they feel about their school experience—making your catering team a valuable asset that can have a massive impact on student satisfaction. 

When you’re catering for students three times a day, it is important to make sure each service has a different look and feel. For example, at breakfast you can use the chef’s theatre station as the main service area and transform the salad bar into a fruit and yoghurt bar. You can also use different parts of the counters in different arrangements for lunch and dinner. 

With many schools having a combination of day and boarding students on roll, there are often fewer people at dinner than at lunchtime. Because there are fewer people to feed and thus less food on display at the counters, students can sometimes have the perception that they are getting less from the dinner service. Catering teams can counter this by making the evening meal more of an event.

Students have visited Argentina, Germany, Mexico, Scotland, Thailand, Turkey and the United States through the Around the World theme night every Wednesday

At some of our schools we have turned to a family-style service, laying tables with tablecloths, cutlery and chopping boards with fresh bread and accompaniments. This also encourages students to sit together more, rather than spread out throughout the dining hall, and turns the meal into more of a social event. 

Themed evenings are also another way to turn dinner for boarders into a real event. Several of our catering teams have done impressive theme meals for Halloween and Chinese New Year, complete with elaborate decorations and authentic cuisine. One school takes its boarders around the world every Wednesday evening, selecting a country on a map displayed in the dining hall and creating a menu of dishes from there. At another school, an authentic Portuguese menu created by one of our chefs proved so popular that many of the flexi-boarders stayed specifically to enjoy the meal.

Another excellent way to engage with boarders and ensure they are happy with the foodservice is to ask for their feedback. You can do this through school food councils, but also by gathering one-to-one feedback from students during the dinner hour. By asking a few key questions and tracking the results, you can get a good picture of how you’re doing and what you can do to continually evolve your food offer. 

You can also give the students an element of choice. At one school, our catering team offers a ‘boarders’ choice’ once a month, giving each boarding house a turn at deciding what they want served for the evening meal. Representatives from the house then work with the head chef to develop the menu and even assist with preparation of the meal, which all boarders will enjoy. Other schools have taken this a step further, offering a Saturday night takeaway option where the boarding houses can nominate the type of food they would like on Saturday evening and pick it up as a ‘takeaway’ to enjoy back at their houses while watching television. 

Even things like providing individual birthday cakes for boarders to share with their friends or special decorated biscuits or other treats for important occasions really demonstrate that the catering team takes an interest in the students and cares about their lives at school.

Gingerbread biscuits in boarding house colours given to every boarding girl at the start of the new term as 'welcome home' treat 

Finally, the catering team can also help make the hours outside of class more interesting for boarders and provide additional educational opportunities by offering cookery classes or even work experience, helping students develop valuable life skills they can use when they go off to university and beyond. 

The key to all of this is a strong partnership between the school and the catering team, whether in-house or contracted. By working together, the catering team can be an integral part of the pastoral care a school offers its students and support the ultimate goal of having happy boarders who enjoy school life inside and outside the classroom. 

Kevin Hopper is General Manager Client Services for Independent Schools at Harrison Catering Services.

W: www.harrisoncatering.co.uk  E: info@harrisoncatering.co.uk  T: 01844 216777

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