All children in state schools in the UK receive a free school meal if they’re in Reception, Year 1 or Year 2 (P1 to P3 in Scotland).
Once your child’s in year 3 (P4), you will have to pay for your child’s school dinner (around £10 per week, though this varies) or make them a packed lunch – unless you qualify for continuing free school meals because you’re on certain benefits (see Who gets free school meals beyond the first 3 years?, below)
It’s thought parents save £400 per child per year (so £1200 per child in total) from the government’s decision (in September 2014) to extend free school meals to all state-school children for the 1st 3 years of school.
What kind of food is in the free school meals?
The free school meals offered to children in the 1st 3 years of school (and to children who qualify for free meals beyond those years) are the same school meals that are offered to children who pay.
All school meals (free or paid-for) that are served up in maintained schools, free schools, academies founded before 2014 and free schools must meet the 2015 School Food Standards. (And academies founded between September 2010 and June 2014 – before the School Food Standards were mandatory – are being encouraged to sign up to these standards, too.)
The government’s guidance document for schools providing school meals is actually quite a good read (if you’re a school governor or interested parent in an English school, you may also be interested in reading the decidedly less chatty guidance for Standards for School Foods in England).
Among other things, it breaks down what should and shouldn’t go into a school meal including:
- 1 or more portions of ‘starchy’ food every day (wholegrain as much as possible)
- 1 or more portions of vegetables or salad every day
- at least 3 different types of fruit and 3 different types of vegetables across the week
- a dessert containing at last 59% fruit served 2 or more times per week
- a portion of meat, fish, beans or other non-dairy sources of protein every day
- no more than 2 portions of deep-fried, battered or breadcrumbed food per week
- no more than 2 portions of pastry products a week
- no chocolate or chocolate-covered food
- desserts, cakes and biscuits are allowed
- water should be the drink of choice, although low-fat milk must also be offered every day
What if my child has special dietary requirements?
Schools are required to make adjustments for pupils with religious or ethical dietary requirements.
And the guidance for school meals states that “allergies or intolerances must be taken seriously” and that “schools and caterers should work closely with parents to support children with medically-verified allergies or intolerances”.
In practice, that mean you should contact the headteacher with details of your child’s allergies or intolerances, with notes from your GP or consultant, if you can. The headteacher should then work with you to ensure the school comes up with suitable meal plans for your child.
Does my child have to have the free school meals?
No. All children in infant classes must be offered free school meals but they do not have to accept them.
And we do know that some parents, like Michelle B in our Facebook community, will feel that school meals just aren’t right for their child. “I think the free meals scheme is great,” she says. “But I have always done packed lunches for my children as they are such fussy eaters.”
Most schools will allow you to give your child a packed lunch to bring in instead of having the school dinner – although you may have to ensure the food inside the lunchbox conforms to the school’s packed-lunch policy.
Why are school dinners provided for free?
They were introduced in 2014 because, although the take up of (paid-for) school dinners was only about 50%, studies found children who had a school meal at lunchtime were 2 months ahead academically of those who had a packed lunch.
A government study also showed – shockingly – that only 1% of packed lunches met the nutritional standard required of school meals.
Lots of parents agree that free school meals are a good idea – and not just because of the money we can all save.
Victoria H in our Facebook community says: “I personally think that the government should give all children free meals at school. A lot of parents at the school I work in who miss out on qualifying for the free school meal once their child is in Year 3 but are only just above the benefit cut-off. They struggle to feed their children and sorely need the help of knowing that their child gets at least one decent hot meal per day at school.”
Who gets free school meals beyond the first 3 years?
Families on very low incomes or certain benefits may be entitled to free school meals beyond Year 2. It doesn’t necessarily follow that, if you’re on benefits, you will qualify for free school meals, though.
Do check if your child is entitled to continuing free school meals if you are on any of the following:
- Income Support
- Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
- Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
- Support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
- The guaranteed element of Pension Credit
- Child Tax Credit (provided you’re not also entitled to Working Tax Credit and have an annual gross income of no more than £16,190)
- Working Tax Credit run-on -(paid for 4 weeks after you stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit)
- Universal Credit
Will all school children ever get free school meals?
We don’t know for certain but a 2013 report carried out by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent recommends that this happens.
The School Food Plan requests that the government thinks about rolling out free school meals to all primary school children: whether government budgets will ever allow this, though, is another issue.