Food for thought: what is a school lunch like today?
Steve Wright rounds up the key trends and innovations across independent school catering
From healthy eating choices to family-style dining, via a host of exotic and imaginative menus that reflect their pupils’ diverse cultural backgrounds and nutritional needs, independent schools are continuing to lead the agenda when it comes to ensuring that our young people are being fed – and educated about food – in the best way possible.
Pupil health and wellbeing is a key consideration, for example, at Haberdashers’ Monmouth School for Girls (HMSG). Recognising the basic importance of vitamins and nutrients, the school’s ever-popular salad bar features anything from asparagus, rocket and mint to edamame beans and feta cheese. “This, as well as a large range of fresh fruit on offer for dessert, encourages the girls to eat their five a day – and to enjoy doing so,” explained HMSG’s Catering Manager, Karen Wood. “There are always interesting options to suit vegetarian and vegan diets, alongside delicious chicken, slow-cooked lamb and beef dishes throughout the week.”
With boarders from around the world calling HMSG home, Karen describes the school’s food as “globally traditional, with modern twists.”
“We try to make our menus interesting and exciting, both visually and taste-wise,” said Karen. “It is crucial for our dishes to appeal to a diverse range of ages and nationalities and to suit a variety of dietary requirements. We work closely with our suppliers, sourcing produce as locally as possible. We expect the freshest and best ingredients at the best market prices.”
It is crucial for our dishes to appeal to a diverse range of ages and nationalities
All this work has certainly paid off, as Karen and her department received a Commendation at last year’s National Education Business Awards. “Regular meetings are held with the girls via our food forum group, which includes a representative from each year group,” she explained. “We constantly move our menu ideas forward, to create interest and improve upon already popular meals.”
Education features high up on the agenda when it comes to food and drink choices at Headington School, Oxford. “We pride ourselves on providing a balanced variety of food options to cater for the different needs of our Prep and Senior girls,” said Catering and Hospitality Manager, Geraint Owen. “Preparing and serving over 1,300 meals a day whilst ensuring there is something for everybody is no easy challenge. All our catering is managed in-house, giving us total control of what is being offered to our students.”
“The students are well educated on the importance of water as part of their Personal, Social and Health Education programme (PSHE), and are encouraged to drink water throughout the day. Water fountains and water coolers are available around the school so students can keep themselves hydrated,” explained Geraint.
As at HMSG, Headington welcomes pupil input via its Food Committee, which meets regularly to discuss and review the choices on offer.
An additional Health and Wellbeing Committee includes parents, catering team, members of the pastoral team, PE staff, school nurse, Food and Nutrition teachers and experts and specialists.
“Our catering team faces many challenges, not least the conflicting advice from new research, experts and scientists, and the media,” Geraint acknowledged. “The Health and Wellbeing Committee, with its range of experts and specialists, provides useful knowledge and, most importantly, evidence on the latest trends. For example, recent press reports have suggested that there is too much focus on healthy eating within schools, bucking the trend over recent years.”
Not far away, the catering team at Bedford Girls’ School (BGS) is currently in the process of applying for the Soil Association’s Food for Life Award (Bronze status), which champions healthy, tasty and sustainable meals, with clearly documented provenance and preparation. In support of this application, last year the team was allocated three plots on the school’s site for growing fruit, vegetables and herbs.
The initiative was originally conducted as a co-curricular lunchtime project, with teachers, students and members of the school’s grounds team helping to dig plots, sow seeds, and water and harvest the produce. Courgettes, radishes, tomatoes, leeks and others were grown during the 2016 spring and summer terms, and used as ingredients in school dishes.
Much of the fish supplied and used in BGS’ dishes are either on the Marine Conservation Society’s ‘fish to eat’ or Marine Stewardship Council approved list. Meanwhile, a change in meat supplier now means 100% farm assurance certification on all the meat used at the school.
We have a lot to be proud of – all meals are produced and cooked on site
“We want our girls to be eating the healthiest foods they can,” said Sean Skipper, Executive Head Chef. “It is important to us that girls and staff know the provenance of their food and understand the importance of fresh, quality produce.”
At St Mary’s School, Colchester, it’s the way meals are eaten, as much as the food on the plate, that’s seen some recent innovation. The school’s new family-style dining system, in which students of mixed year groups sit down together every day, with older students and teachers helping to serve younger students, is proving a hit. “Sitting down for lunch together is the ideal opportunity for young people to learn good table manners, forge relationships, and cultivate the art of sophisticated conversation,” explained Principal, Hilary Vipond.
The food consumed at these family-style occasions is also of the highest level: St Mary’s catering team was recently presented with an award for Outstanding Contribution by their employer, the national education catering company Holroyd Howe.
This academic year, the team were challenged to further develop the look and feel of lunches throughout the school. They responded with new-look salad bars, theme days marking international and cultural events, and innovations in serving and food preparation at both school sites
“The team have really pulled together,” explained James Stacey, Holroyd Howe’s Operations Manager. “There is a great buzz in the kitchen and dining hall and the chefs have become much more engaged with pupils to really enhance their dining experience.”
Last but definitely not least, Malvern St James Girls’ School (MSJ) is celebrating after its catering team was awarded, in February, a prestigious Gold Healthier Choices Food Award. The award joins the school’s Level 5 Food Hygiene Rating, a fairly rare double for schools to achieve.
Anita Fisher, MSJ’s Head of Catering, and her team work hard to provide nutritionally balanced menus that cater for all preferences, nationalities and dietary requirements. All of their ingredients come from a small family supplier in Gloucestershire, which in turn sources many of its products from the local area.
“We have a lot to be proud of – all meals are produced and cooked on site using fresh meat and vegetables; healthy drinks, fresh fruit and daily homemade vegetarian soup are always on the menu; breads and desserts are cooked on site,” explained Anita. Sample recent menus include Caribbean chicken and pumpkin curry with jasmine rice, Normandy mushroom wellington with chunky fries and garden peas, and vegetable Cumberland pie with farmhouse vegetables.
Anita and her team made the major decision to move from contract to in-house catering some five years ago. “We felt that the flexibility and standard of the food offer would improve immeasurably,” she said. “Changes – to the menu offer, presentation, staffing and equipment – were gradual. In the beginning we had advice from a consultant. However, we quickly realised what was needed.”
Anita recruited a team of new chefs, from top-class restaurants and hotels, to work alongside her current team.
“I then looked at suppliers, factoring in local produce, good range and pricing, and flexibility. I found that independence opened lots of doors; I was in control of what I wanted to use and could negotiate good prices without a third party involved.”
“Our suppliers, Creed Foodservice, are flexible on deliveries and assist with any special requirements on an individual basis. Their Development Chef keeps me updated with trends and new ideas. We also regularly take groups of our girls, staff and my team to their depots, butchery and even the farm that produces their pork.”
Lunch and supper menus are produced weekly, together with all the recipes and allergy information, allowing the team to introduce favourites, themes and variety. “As a boarding school, our biggest challenge with our menus is catering for so many nationalities and tastes,” said Anita. “We overcome this by meeting with the girls, especially boarders, and inviting their suggestions and feedback. Special lunches and evenings allow everyone to join in with different cultural events, for example Burns’ Night Supper, Chinese New Year and Nigerian Theme Night.”
“Parents often say that the catering at MSJ is like eating at a top-class restaurant and that they are happy that their daughters are being well catered for. This is their home, and variety, choice and fresh produce are vital. I’m passionate about food and I believe this comes through in what we do. Looking, checking and tasting are key to high standards.”