/ Food & Drink, Parenting

Why I’m happy to swallow the cost of school meals

'Back to school' spelt out in spaghetti

Lumpy custard and gravy with everything… school meals have moved on a lot since my day, which is why I like my children to have them. But, with some prices going up, are they becoming a luxury that many can’t afford?

I love school dinners, I really do! They make my life easier.

Less stress for me in the morning because I haven’t got to knock up yet another meal which is nutritious and fits in with the latest school rules about what is and isn’t allowed in the lunch box. And, most importantly, it’s actually likely to be eaten.

Both of my kids have school dinners which cost £1.60 each. Yes, I could do without writing a cheque for nearly a hundred pounds every half term but I’m still a big fan.

The school dinner divide

I think we should all do our bit to make sure the next generation not only eats healthily but also experiences dining with peers. Did anyone else see the Jamie Oliver series in the US where some of the kids couldn’t use a knife and fork?

Still, I recognise that this is one of the most contentious subjects for anyone who cares for a school child. Want to start a ‘heated debate’ among parents? Then kick off with the subject of school dinners. Some parents believe their children won’t eat anything if they’re ‘forced’ to have school dinners; others argue that pupils should only have school dinners.

At the moment, I happen to believe that school meals are good for my children. I want them to have the option of a nutritionally-balanced hot meal in a supervised environment. I want them to be shown what’s expected when they sit down to eat and to enjoy eating with their friends.

But I know that I have a rose-tinted view; my children are the first to say that the mysterious sauce covering the chicken was ‘disgusting’ or ‘it wasn’t fair as all of the chocolate pudding had gone!’. But I stick with them – and I’m proud that Which? had a role in setting the standards for food in schools.

Are school meals a luxury?

Unfortunately, though, we are at risk of school dinners becoming a luxury that some can’t afford, especially with this week’s news that some school meals will be going up to £2.60, which is sad.

In these times it is an expense that some people have had to ‘cut’. Like everyone, I’m trying to save wherever I can. But – at the moment – I’m not doing this with school dinners. When one piece of fruit can cost 40p, school dinners can work out to be inexpensive – and I might even be saving money. But for how much longer?

Do I believe that everyone should have the choice of giving their children school dinners? Absolutely. I think that they should have the right to have healthy meals which are reasonably priced in an environment where children can enjoy food together.

But should parents have the choice to be able to give their child a packed lunch? Of course they should. However, I do know of one child who has a jam sandwich on white bread in his packed lunch every single day – and that’s not really much of a choice, is it?

School Food Trust says:
7 April 2011

Lots of interesting thoughts, thanks for flagging! Clearly, the reality is that school meals services continue to face many (and varied) financial pressures, but in our everyday work with schools and councils we’re really encouraged to see so many keeping the price of a healthy school lunch low and securing continued investment. Keeping good school food affordable for parents and tasty, hot meals on the menu pays back a big return on all sides; when children eat better, they do better.

We’re here to help any school worried about being able to keep meal prices affordable; there are lots and lots of options that you can explore. Any school wanting help can get in touch.

School meals will always be a luxury.

For those struggling with cash, surely packed lunches are the best thing.

It is merely a choice if you can afford it or not. If you can’t afford it, you don’t do it.

I guess it all depends on whether you can (be bothered to) cook in the evening.

As a child, my mum stayed at home, I had packed lunches and she cooked the simplest meals possible in the evening with produce grown in my dad’s allotment.

and btw, why do you want to give kids choice?

“You’ll get what you’re bloody given” was always the reply when I asked for a choice 🙂

Some interesting stats in the paper today about pupils who have had Jamie’s school dinners. They say that the number of pupils reaching a high level in English tests rose by 6% at the London schools where Oliver launched his menu in 2004 and sickness rates fell by 14% in the five years to 2008.

Do you think these results are linked to healthy school dinners? I’m a big believer that healthy eating helps you function more effectively, so I’m happy to believe the figures.

School Food Trust says:
11 April 2011

Our research in schools shows clear links between the food that children eat at lunchtime, the environment in which they eat and their concentration and behaviour in lessons after lunch. 

In our studies in both primary and secondary schools, pupils were more focused and alert with their teachers after a healthier meal in a better dining space, showing just how important a good lunchtime is for children’s learning. 

Research also shows the impact of national standards for school meals on the food that children are now choosing and eating at lunchtime – with almost three quarters of primary pupils who have school meals now taking vegetables or salad with their lunch, more children having water to drink and the average school meal now lower in fat, sugar and salt.

Full reports on:

School lunch and learning behaviour in primary schools: an intervention study

School lunch and learning behaviour in secondary schools: an intervention study

School Food Trust Primary Survey of School Lunches, 2009

Emily says:
3 July 2011

I enjoy my school meals, but I get £2 a day, and they cost £2.10, so I can only have it every other day; on the other days I have to have sandwiches at school, unless they have jacket potatos. And often they run out of them. 🙁 But even when I have school meals (which are really nice!) even if you only have mashed potato and beans (my firned did this once) it’s £2.10. But a full meal plus dessert with gravy for meal, custard for dessert and a slice of bread is also £2.10. Wacky pricing.

And i totally disagree that school meals should be luxury items and only if you can afford them; it’s like saying you only deserve hot food if you can afford a cooker, pans and food to cook. It should be a right, not a privelage.

Forgive me for asking, but aren’t school meals for the kids? 🙂 Unless…

Emily says:
21 July 2011

I am still school age (15). Too ruddy expensive!

Raindrop says:
21 July 2011

I can’t afford school meals for my children ( 5 and 10 yrs old) which I find stressful to be honest. My little one loves a warm meal especially during the cold days and barely touches his packed lunches. He did eat most of his packed lunches when he first started school and performed well but then after a month started eating less and less and eventually has had lack of focus and concentration during afternoon lessons. I try to make him eat school dinner as often as i can afford it but it is so expensive that i can only manage to let him have those meals twice maybe three times a month. I stress out preparing his packed lunches because I am constantly trying to find new ways to make it interesting and yummy for him but it’s no use, it just doesn’t beat a warm prepared meal with everything. I feel bad because i know meals are the problem why he lacks concentration after lunch and i can’t afford him to eat school dinners more often. I wish school dinners were cheaper.

if you can’t afford school meals, invest in those large lidded pots (like thermos flasks) and fill them with pasta and sauce or some wholesome soup that will be warm and filling 🙂 I work in a school kitchen, and have to help several children, daily, to open theirs 🙂 Such clever Mummys to provide their kiddies with a *hot* packed lunch ! 🙂

Raindrop says:
10 October 2012

To Nick : I have tried that too but having a container of pasta which has been prepared several hours prior eating will never stay that warm and the pasta becomes a bit soggy. It might beat cold food but it still doesn’t beat a freshly prepared hot meal. I mostly prepare hot food and put it in their lunch bags anyway. They very rarely get cold food. My point is, someone who is earning a low income or not working at all get the meals for free when the ones who work cannot always afford them. I am not saying the low income earners should pay the entire price but more like a subsidised price. I personally think that would be fair. Someone said in here that if you can’t afford it you don’t have it, well they can’t afford it but their kids still have it and I am not only talking about school dinners. Most after school clubs are also either free or subsidised for them. My children cannot go to more than one school club or maybe two in a year because it’s too bloody expensive so they have to miss on that too. Just because you work doesn’t mean you are rich and sometimes it can get a little tricky.

John says:
10 October 2012

I agree with you, Raindrop. My children are having a big problem with eating packed lunches. Can’t afford the school meals everyday/every week and don’t even want to think about school clubs. Maybe I should quit my job then I would get all the freebies.

click here says:
6 November 2012

I must get across my admiration for your generosity supporting men who need help on this one study. Your real dedication to getting the solution all over turned out to be rather helpful and has always empowered men and women much like me to realize their goals. Your amazing valuable suggestions means so much a person like me and further more to my office workers. With thanks; from all of us.