I recently took a long-haul flight to Australia which, as I am sure is the same for most people, I found a struggle. The times I felt most active were when the meal trolley turned up. This got me thinking about how the monotony of routine or only seeing the same four walls (well clouds through airline windows) can create boredom and restlessness. As such, I started to think about how, as caterers, we need to keep boarders happy and engaged, through their food during their long runs of being away from home. I was only ‘stuck’ for 24 hours but I am sure that the same sort of feeling can often be faced by any boarder.
Taste can be one of the most reminiscent senses, and many people tend to associate happy memories with food. Now being of more mature years, when meeting up with old school pals, we often recall school food harking back to loves and hates. There are many dishes that we all think of fondly – but some dishes that used to make us gag. And, we can all agree that the importance of food and the choices available to pupils are a stratosphere away from our 70s experience. Ensuring variety and excitement in the kitchen can play a vital role in ‘keeping up morale’.
We like to make the effort to spice up a boarder’s routine in the interest of general happiness and wellbeing. In addition, the social element of eating experiences is hugely important for developing teenagers and, for us all for that matter. So providing them with a variety of engaging and exciting culinary experiences can make all the difference in making them feel this is the place they want to be.
Schools in very remote locations make the compulsion of being on site even more significant. It is therefore, vital to make that experience as varied, engaging, and up-to-date with high street trends as possible. There are several ways this can be replicated. One is to provide food which boarders might be expected to eat if they were at home. Popular British staples and traditions are always welcomed. Sunday roasts, Saturday night ‘take-aways’ and BBQs (when the sun is out) can provide not only a sense of homeliness and comfort for boarders, but also they give a focal point for socialising, forgetting they are at school. In addition, engaging pupils in the preparation of the meal can help bring ‘home’ to school. This is fun at all ages but particularly when they learn new skills, like how to make sushi.
It’s important to ‘mix things up’ and provide experiences which are more unusual and out-of-the-ordinary. Any theme days for specific events of the year such as Diwali or Chinese New Year are always popular. They can be especially engaging for international boarders if they are involved in preparing the meals. Equally other initiatives like live-theatre, sharing platters and pop-up street-food-style counters never fail to excite.
Although we can’t speed up time or change the physical environment, we can develop creative spaces and use food to invoke memories for our pupils of being at home or another favourite destination. So in 2056, when the current generation are meeting up on reunions, they will be discussing the food at school with fondness and not the tinned pilchards and salad that still fills me with horror.
Sue Parfett is Managing Partner of the education caterer, The Brookwood Partnership.