Will your child have a hot meal or a cold meal? Provided by school, or by you? We explain what kind of lunches you can expect your child to have once they start school.
The main benefit of a balanced meal at lunchtime is the improvement of your child’s nutrition. The School Food Trust was created to implement the national nutritional standards for schools’ meals and they have found that children are now eating more portions of fruit and vegetables and are drinking water instead of sugary drinks with their meal.
“Through tracking our progress in primary schools, we’ve seen really clearly that the average school lunch is now lower in saturated fats, sugar and salt than it was in 2005 when the new standards were introduced,” says Claire Rick, from the School Food Trust.
However, not only does better school food improve your child’s nutrition, but it will also increase your child’s concentration in class.
“We found that in primary schools where we improved the food that was on the menu and worked on the environment that children were eating in to make a more pleasant dining space for them, children were three times more focused with their teachers after lunchtime,” explains Claire.
Whether your child is offered a hot meal or the choice to bring in their own packed lunch will depend on their school. While schools won’t make packed lunches for your child, their lunchtime menu will offer both hot and cold food.
Schools are required to offer high-quality meat, poultry or oily fish on a regular basis, as well as bread, cereals and potatoes and at least two portions of fruit and vegetables with every meal.
“All the evidence shows that the average school lunch is healthier than a typical packed lunch. Packed lunches are often higher in saturated fats, sugar and salt and usually contain products that schools don’t sell anymore, such as chocolate, confectionary and crisps,” says Claire.
If your child’s school doesn’t offer a hot school meal, it’s most likely due to infrastructure problems. According to Claire, the School Food Trust is now working with the government to make sure than when new schools are built, they include adequate kitchen and dining room facilities.
If you live in England and Wales and receive any of the following support, your children are entitled to free school lunches:
Your child’s school is maintained by the local authority so you will need to contact them in order to apply for free school meals. Visit Direct Gov’s local authority database and type in your postcode or county to find your local authority. Here you can find out more and/or apply online.
If your child goes to a school that offers a hot school dinner at lunchtime, but you don’t qualify for free meals, then you can pay. The average cost in the UK for a school dinner is approximately £2 per day for a two course meal, including a vegetarian option and supplementary bread.
The exact cost depends on your local authority and school. To find out how much a school meal costs in your area, visit Direct Gov’s local authority database and type in your postcode or county.
Make sure you pack a balanced lunch for your child, including starchy foods, proteins, dairy items and a portion of fruit and vegetables.
The School Food Trust has created some low-cost and low-effort sample packed lunch menus, to give you an idea of how you can make sure your child’s lunch meets the same nutritional standards as a school lunch.
“They do take a bit more time to prepare than parents might imagine spending on a packed lunch normally and that’s because the nutritional standards are complicated. Although they’re the toughest in the world, that’s a good thing because we want the best for our children,” says Claire.
Don’t be put off thinking that packed lunches have to be boring, however. Claire’s top tip for a successful packed lunch is to keep the bread and salad separate. Children often find that the lettuce or cucumber makes the bread go soggy. For more interesting packed lunch ideas, see our guide to funky sandwich creations that are simple to make, but look exciting to eat.
To find out what makes the ideal packed lunch, read our guide How to pack a healthy lunch box every day.
Give your child a bit of encouragement to eat their lunch by packing it in a funky lunchbox. We’ve done the hard work for you with our Top 10 fun lunchboxes.
Your child refuses to eat at home, so why will they eat at school? Well, according to the School Food Trust, which surveyed 1,000 parents on this topic, 80% said that their child had tried a food at school that they wouldn’t try at home.
“Schools are a kind of positive peer pressure environment. Children always want to eat what their friends are eating and so your child’s friends can be a good influence on their eating habits. The other good thing is that school meals are really varied, so children will always be trying new dishes, which may help too,” says Claire.
Lunchtime supervisors and school cooks are really good at spotting those who are scared to try new things and only want to have the same thing every day and just encourage them and give them little tiny tasters.
“If your child is particularly fussy, it may take a long time. I think all parents know that when you’re introducing your child to try a new food, it takes loads of tastes and loads of times until they start accepting that food and it’s no different at school,” says Claire.
If your child has a known food allergy, the best thing to do is to tell your child’s school. Give them time to prepare so if your child is about to start a new school, mention the allergy when you visit the school or during a meeting with the new Headteacher. It might also be a good idea to put it in a letter to the school so they have it in writing and make sure you let them know the proper procedure or medication that your child needs incase of an allergic reaction.
If you haven’t decided what school to send your child to and you’re going around visiting schools, don’t forget to ask staff or pupils about the school food.
“Some people forget when they’re going round and speaking to teachers, looking in classrooms and asking about Ofsted reports to go and ask to try a school meal. The schools will be really accommodating about this request. Also have a look at their dining room and chat to people that are involved and ask lots of questions,” advises Claire.
For more tips on the questions you should be asking when choosing a school, read our guide to the top 10 questions to ask when visiting a primary school.
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