Making a meal of it

Pupil expectations are rising as palates become sophisticated, and school caterers have to be more innovative than ever before, reports Hannah Vickers

The school dinner is very different to what it used to be. Now, pupils can expect exotic dishes, street food, and a wide range of choice when they reach the serving counter. 

The world is getting smaller, thanks to technology and the ease of travel many enjoy nowadays. School trips are becoming more exotic and children’s palates are becoming more sophisticated as a result. Caterers have to be imaginative, redesigning the menu with frequency, and consulting the pupils for their preferences.

Boarding schools, especially, work hard to make sure that the school is a home-from-home, and the dining hall is at the heart of this. In many cases, pupils eat five times a day, coming for break times as well as the main meals of the day, and providers have to make sure that the menu is varied and interesting – appealing to all pupils, from the youngest to the sixth form. 

As always, different dietary requirements need to be catered for, but there’s been a notable rise in vegetarianism and veganism in recent years – and there’s more of an awareness of allergies now, so there’s a lot more for caterers to consider when putting together a new menu.

Redesigning the menu

Designing a new menu is no simple business, explained Sodexo’s Graham Heffer, who organises the catering for Wycombe Abbey. There are a lot of different factors you have to be aware of, if you want to keep both pupils and staff happy.

“We have to consider that the students will be with us every day, so we aim to provide regularly changing menus with a healthy content that looks attractive when serving,” said Graham. 

Different dietary requirements need to be taken into consideration too. And, it’s not just about making sure that special diets are catered for, and having allergy advice available about all the dishes, but also that special occasions are well prepared for, too. The ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach doesn’t work for school trips, for example. The kind of packed meal being provided has to be appropriate for the trip. 

“The sports teams may look for a more substantial meal with a higher calorific content than those who are on a geography field trip,” he added. 

Schools also have to be careful that the menu doesn’t become repetitive, that it is innovative and attractive as well as healthy, and that it is not wasteful. Caterers now pay particular attention to making sure that the ingredients are sourced locally and use seasonal produce when possible. 

And, of course, a key challenge for any caterer is convincing children – who can be notoriously picky eaters – to eat it. Palates vary enormously between the youngest and the oldest, and preferences evolve over the years. Keeping everyone happy is no mean feat. Technology and globalisation also impact on pupils’ tastes, as far flung school trips and social media are more abundant than for previous generations. 

“As a result, we have found that our pupils have quite discerning palates and high expectations. On occasions, getting younger children to try new foods can be a challenge but we use the support of our catering team on site to encourage them to be more adventurous!” said David Pocock, Bursar at Kelvinside Academy. 

Their caterers, Inspire Catering, are an independent Scottish company that cater for independent schools, further education colleges, blue chip companies and training centres. They run an initiative, PULSE, which delivers a series of food-related events and theme days every month. It helps to make the school lunchtime experience fun and upcoming events include Halloween and World Teachers’ Day, and they’ve just finished celebrating Scottish Food Fortnight. 

“Food needs to be fresh, nutritious and appeal to an eight-year-old just as much as an 18-year-old,” added Kate Walker, Financial Director of Hymers College. “Our menus are designed on a weekly basis using only fresh food that is cooked on site by our caterers. This enables the school to ensure that the menu can be themed – relating to seasons and annual events – and on trend.”

Keeping on trend

Nowadays, the humble school dinner is expected to keep up with current food trends. Graham explained how street food has been growing in popularity over the last four years, and that Korean and Portuguese food is currently hot. 

“We are seeing a rise in the demand for healthy snacks – such as smoothies, iced drinks and healthier packed meals – but that hasn’t stopped us seeing a demand for the not-so-healthy ice-cream bar,” said Graham. 

Kate added that Wilson Vale Catering, who have been in charge of provision for Hymers College for over a decade, incorporate themed events, street food and international dishes into the school menu. They are very focused on new trends and attend local food festivals regularly. 

Inspire Catering have also introduced a ‘World Street Food’ range to tempt Kelvinside’s senior pupils.

“We have also noticed an increase in vegetarians, vegans and special dietary requirements and allergens which need to be catered for. Together with the school nurses, we have compiled a special diet monitoring sheet, with pupil photographs for identification. This allows food service assistants to identify pupils with dietary restrictions and to help them select from the menu each day,” said David.

Kelvinside uses its virtual learning environment ‘Frog’ and the school website to keep pupils and their parents up to date on the menu, allowing them to see it in advance so that pupils with special dietary requirements can pre-order their meals.

A taste of home

For boarding schools, of course, it’s not just about keeping the pupils fed, but also about providing home comforts. 

“The school is home to our students for more than 30 weeks of the year and therefore it’s very important that we try to create a home-from-home feel to the food experience,” explained Graham. Wycombe Abbey pupils visit the dining room five times a day, so the menu needs to be varied. 

Another way schools make sure the menu is a hit with their pupils is by getting them involved in choosing what goes into it.

“Pupils are encouraged to get involved in decision-making with the food, suggesting improvements and new dishes,” he added. 

Alderley Edge School for Girls assembled a Food Council Group, made up of more than 20 pupils from Year 7 to sixth form, when they appointed new caterers. The Group designed a menu with feedback from their peers and support from the deputy head, headmistress and the new catering team to design the new menu in the summer term.

Deputy Head, Caroline Wood, explained how the menu will be reviewed and “tweaked where necessary” at the end of the term, to make sure that all the pupils are happy with it. The new salad bar, a large attractive area which also acts as a focal point of the dining facility, has been especially popular. 

“So far, without exception, pupils, staff and parents have been very positive about the change. There is never going to be a perfect menu, but we have come a long way to cater for all,” said Caroline. “Girls are more confident in trying new foods, as well as still loving their favourites of sausage and mash! It is the fuel that keeps them going all day, so it was essential that we got this right.” 

Some things will never change. Children still fight over eating their greens, for example. But school dinners are in a different league from what they once were. Now, pupils can expect to be consulted – even heavily involved – in the redesign of the menu, and have a wide selection of dishes to choose from. Expectations have risen, and schools’ catering providers have stepped up. It’s a far cry from the ‘get what you’re given’ mindset of yesteryear.