Soggy veg v sandwiches: are school dinners better than a packed lunch?
“So, what did you have for school dinner today?” I asked my nine-year-old daughter, Milly. “Cheese and crackers!” came the cheerful reply. Harrumph: £1.90 a day for that? And now I’ve got to go from 0 to 5 in one hit with her fruit and veg. Milly would have preferred a packed lunch anyway, but the chances are her super-disorganised mum would barely have had bread, let alone anything to put inside it.
The debate rumbles on, just like the stomachs of those children who jettison their mothers’ lovingly made soups and sandwiches to the nearest bin – a dinner lady at my children’s school told me that every lunchtime, bins overflow with sandwiches. Ironically, sweet stuff or crisps (banned by many schools) are devoured.
The issue of school dinner v packed lunch usually centres on food quality. Thanks largely to Jamie Oliver, turkey twizzlers and reconstituted chicken gristle are no more, yet the expected uptake in school dinners hasn’t happened. For some, the fried stuff had a ring of cosy familiarity: as parents we all know how hard it can be to persuade little Johnny to try something new today (apparently it can take seven tastes of a new food before it is accepted). As a result schools try to steer a middle ground, giving children what they like without taking the easy option of nuggets and chips or challenging them with anything too exotic.
At my children’s school, this meant plenty of vegetables, but rarely chips or fried food and everything made on the premises, partly to ward off the child obesity epidemic that is looming in Britain. Admirable. But this is also fraught with difficulty: my children – used to veg cooked al dente – whinged about soggy veggies and gristly meat. Even with the right food choices, staff need training.
On balance it makes sense for all children to eat a nutritious, filling, hot lunch on a winter’s day – a godsend for some families entitled to free school meals who may not be able to give their children nutritious food due to lack of money, long working hours or poor cooking skills. But it’s a constant challenge for schools to provide quality food at low cost: in some areas, efforts are being made to support local farmers and other food producers (also reducing food miles and helping the rural economy) so that children also learn where their meat and potatoes have come from.
A packed lunch gives parents more control, can include their five a day for fruit and veg and is essential for those with food allergies. Yet peer pressure kicks in early. Seven-year-old Sophie could end up championing some brand of processed cheese over cheddar, making the supermarket shop even more fraught. Suddenly, shepherd’s pie and jam roly poly can seem positively Utopian.
At secondary school, the whole issue is less incendiary. By then, most children are less fussy and may enjoy the option of baguettes, salads or a jacket potato. And with cashless payment systems, your teenager will get used to budgeting for what they eat – good practice for life. At one school, in Barking, Essex, there’s even been an 11% rise in numbers eating school dinners, as cashless cards have removed any stigma previously attached to those entitled to a free school meal.
Jo Lamiri is the editor of Delia Smith’s website and a member of the Guild of Food Writers.