At the start of another academic year, school caterers up and down the land will be planning menus for the term ahead. And we know that we have a lot to do to make a positive impact.
In any building project, a strong foundation is essential. In our business, that foundation is menu creation and planning. By now, at schools across the country menus will have been researched and some new dishes trialled, rather than simply rolling out last year’s (or the last decade’s) menu. Menus should please all the diners they are catering for, as well as being manageable and within budget.
Pressures on the catering business are increasing all the time. Families are eating out and travelling much more, and thus demanding more variety from their menus. There’s a call for healthier eating from a young age, food scares abound, food allergies are becoming ever more prevalent, new procedures to prevent food poisoning must be adopted – and never a year goes by without more regulation.
All this means that, when creating menus, there are several other factors to consider before the food gets on the plate. Parents wanting the best food for their offspring, pupils wanting the food that they enjoy and, of course, a budget which we would always like to be that bit higher, all come into play. A caterer may dream of turning into a school’s version of Heston Blumenthal, but the results will be hopeless if they haven’t considered the kitchen equipment available and the skills of their team.
The menu during the first week back to school always has to be thought through carefully, for a variety of reasons. Not least of these will be that, for a whole group of pupils, the catering service will be brand new and, quite possibly, daunting. Boarders and, in particular, international students may well be far from home and, possibly, feeling a bit homesick. Careful thought should be given to the menu, making sure that it is both as practical and as welcoming as possible.
After this, every experienced caterer knows that there are certain staples that just can’t be taken off the menu. In schools, I would suggest, these are roast dinner and pasta, probably in equal measure. Nothing exciting or different there, then – but, as with Andy Murray’s service game, it’s all in the delivery. Roast can be a greying piece of razor-thin meat sloshing around in gravy – or you can put a bit of theatre into the service and carve in the dining room.
These options are a base around which the rest of the menu can be built up. Menus are one of those things that can and should be looked at time and time again. It is easy to miss things –for example, that two main courses on the same day are both tomato-based. Ensuring a good balance of choice, colour and flavour across each meal, and then across each week, is quite a task – even more so when planning a whole menu cycle from the start of term, and more so still if that cycle includes boarders. A four-week menu can easily require 140 different main course choices.
Giving your menu time to develop is, above almost anything else, critical to the success of the catering service and the reputation it enjoys throughout the school. This has to be, as caterers, what we are all aiming for.