UK school dinners: how to get ready for the new school year

What have school kitchens learnt from the pandemic? We talk to two school food experts to get their opinion on how to make a positive start in September

Bringing children safely back to the classroom has been a major landmark in getting the country up and running again during the pandemic… and our school kitchen staff have led the way. Comforting aromas of sausages and mash, freshly baked bread and strawberry cheesecake have fuelled the fightback, spearheaded by our incredible teachers and cooks.

So, we asked Louise Wagstaffe, Senior Culinary Advisor at Premier Foods, to give us an indication of what she thinks the start of the new September term might look like – and when you should start the all-important planning.

Can we go back to normal?

By the start of the September term, schools and their communal dining areas will hopefully be very different places from the same time last year if the vaccination programme has been successful. Hygiene, food safety and the best parts of social distancing are still likely to be front of mind for parents and will continue to dictate the way kitchens operate into the near future.

Will some changes be worth keeping?

Some creative ideas brought in by schools and catering teams have been really successful, so they may choose to tweak the way they run in the new school year. Every school is different in size and layout, so each needs a slightly different and flexible plan for the future. Make sure you build yours around the pupils and their needs, kitchen skill levels, available equipment, dining-room facilities as well as access to alternative areas and outside dining spaces. Staggered lunchtimes and reduced menus have been a big success and have helped kitchen staff spread out their service to be more efficient.

New excitement

The new school year is an exciting time for pupils, with lunchtimes being a familiar and comforting part of the day that provide the perfect chance to sit and chat with friends. While guidance on restrictions and regulations may change again before September, caterers’ priority must be to ensure a smooth re-opening and to offer children healthy, exciting and accessible meals.

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Fire up the old school dinners… and add a twist!

There’s a strong argument for sticking with traditional favourites… after all, everyone talks with affection about their most-loved school dinners. Children enjoy the familiarity of a menu they can trust, and that will be even more important after more than a year of uncertainty and changes.

But as the new term starts and restrictions ease, it is also the perfect opportunity to try something different in the kitchen. This can help reinforce the feeling among the children that the future looks bright.

Menu planning and development

Children have become more used to eating outside or in their classroom bubble, so a street-food theme with a grab-and-go option will boost the fun factor and get them talking.

“This will be important for caterers because a menu should include new and exciting dishes with global flavours,” says Louise. “Caterers can offer innovative meals that allow the pupils to travel the world through their taste buds. We have just launched a range of new recipes, including a Turkish Spicy Sumac Lamb Pie and Korean Gochujang Chicken Kebab served in Black Sesame Oil which will certainly offer innovation to a school’s menu and help with planning autumn menus.”

Maintaining standards

Parents will need reassurance that food standards and safety are being maintained as kitchens return to normality, so caterers need to pay close attention to allergens and dietary requirements.

This is even more important if they are reducing options to ensure a simple and efficient lunch service. Think about using products like Bisto Gluten & Vegan Gravy with no declared allergens, Gluten Free Angel Delight Mousse and McDougalls Vegetarian Jelly Crystals, which can make a variety of dishes, suitable for all pupils.

Caterer preparing food

Natasha's Law

Start thinking about changes to make your menus compliant with Natasha’s Law, which comes into effect from 1 October (see more on this here). Natasha’s Law covers labelling requirements for foods prepared and packed on the same premises from which they are sold, so it is vital for schools to be compliant and ensure packaged items, such as sandwiches and salad pots, follow the new labelling guidelines.

Louise says: “Caterers must be aware of allergies and dietary requirements of all new pupils joining the school in September, as well as reaffirming those of current pupils to make sure they have not changed since the summer.”

“We’ve worked on solutions to ensure caterers have the correct mix for their pupils, from vegetarian Vegetable and Lentil Lasagne to a vegan sponge recipe using McDougalls flour, served with Bird’s custard powder made with a soya milk.”

Tackle your training

Use the time before the new school year to ensure your staff members’ training is up to date. Every kitchen worker should be led through the new menu and any new recipes to ensure they are aware of ingredients and allergens.

Cater for vegan, vegetarian and plant-based diets

Demand for vegetarian and plant-based or vegan meals has surged in the past year so it is essential that schools move with the times.

A meat-free Monday is a great way to incorporate vegetarian meals into school menus. It doesn’t have to be a revolution – why not put a simple twist on a classic lasagne? A vegetable and lentil lasagne or vegan chickpea burger made using Paxo stuffing are simple to make and cost-effective.

Access Premier Foods’ back to school recipe guide here.

Children serving themselves food

LACA's expert advice

Jacquie Blake, National Vice Chair of LACA – the school food people – shares her views on the new term and what Covid-19 has taught us.

“School kitchen caterers have done an outstanding job on the frontline during the past 15 months. They’ve showed flexibility, creativity and patience to keep our children fed.

“The move from dining room to classroom mealtimes and the use of reusable and hot boxes has been a major change that caterers have taken in their stride. As restrictions ease, their job will be to offer a reassuring return to the communal eating areas as well as taking the best of the new ideas to add to the familiar and welcoming lunch service.

“Logistics have changed a lot and the easing of restrictions will free up some schools to return to normal, but others may be cautious and reluctant to change back too quickly.

“Caterers will need to start conversations with head teachers and midday supervisors before term starts to devise a kitchen service that’s tailored to their school’s needs.

“Kitchen staff will breathe a sigh of relief when pupils come back to the dining room and they can control the flow, enjoy the buzz and interact with the children. It will be a step back to normality with all the good lessons around hygiene still front of mind. The children will be thrilled to sit with their friends again and that is a good opportunity to be innovative with the menu. We are also running Welcome Back to School theme days to encourage teams to run taste tests of new dishes. Because if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we’re resilient and capable of embracing new things.”

Find out more about this and preparations for Natasha’s Law, as well as the allergen tool and advice at: laca.co.uk

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