In search of the Perfect School Lunch

My son came home from school with a leaflet one day: “Great food for Primary Schools: a parent’s guide”. Talk about trying to “re-brand”!

The very mention of school dinners to anyone who has experienced them is likely to conjure up images of characterful dinner ladies and uniquely unpleasant meal options. Who can forget spotted dick, “frog spawn” (tapioca), soggy cabbage, lumpy custard, “gristle” pie (dog food?) and the much-maligned instant mashed potato, randomly garnished with hair-of-chef or fingernail-of-dinner lady?

School dinners have always been awful; it’s part of school lore. Lukewarm, bland, nutritionally-deficient, mass-catered grub has passed down the gullets of hapless schoolchildren for generation after generation. So why the sudden image makeover?

Most of us know the answer to that: celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s televised crusade to shock the nation into realising that we should be giving our kids the best, not the worst, of nature’s bounty. Result: a frenzy of articles, programmes and policies all focusing on nutrition and child health.

I happened to listen to The Food Programme on Radio 4 as I was cleaning the bath. They were visiting an idyllic rural area in Sweden, where every child is entitled to a free, freshly-made school meal. There doesn’t appear to be a choice of meal, the children have to eat what they are given and there’s a teacher at every table teaching the diners about table manners and nutrition. Yes, well, sounds wonderful, if a little poisonously perfect, but anything can be made to sound good.

When I was at primary school, food was cooked on the premises, a balanced meal was strived for and we were made to eat up all our food. Sounds great. But what was the reality? Particularly reluctant pupils were force-fed food they didn’t want (usually by Madame Ungerson, the most unpleasant teacher I’ve ever encountered).

Also, every child had to select at least two portions of vegetable with the main meal. Good. Reality: depends what you call vegetables. One lunch hour I spent several precious minutes arguing pointlessly with a dinner lady over whether spaghetti hoops could be classified as veg: I said it was a cereal, the dinner lady, with a grim face and a catering hat the size of a postage stamp, insisted it was a vegetable “because I say so”.

Let’s see what gloss my parent’s guide to “Great Food for Primary Schools” puts on the matter. Pictures of happy, smiling and active children – yes, to be expected. Photos of food – naturally, though a few potato smiles have slipped in and a rather strange-looking baked potato. And an easy-to-read text telling me of all the good things HC3S (Hampshire County Council Caterers for Schools?) are doing: working with suppliers to remove E numbers from products, continuing vegetarian options, checking for any GM foods, and catering for special diets. Impressive stuff.

I go onto the website. There’s a “Robbie and Rosie” (who?) kids club, though what goes on there is secret to the members; a fun fair section where children can play games online and enjoy some tired jokes (to make lunchtime fun?); and a bit for parents and teachers, where you can express your views, scan the menus and see what ingredients are being used.

With salad available every day, chips (“chipped potatoes”) only on a Friday, and healthy-sounding dishes like organic beef burgers, vegetable and lentil bolognese, and tomato or garlic bread, the menus sound rather good. Almost as good as the Swedish schools on Radio 4, you might think. But what’s it like in practice?

A closer look shows that instead of chips, there are potato spirals, potato wedges and potato “bytes” (yes, that’s how they spell it on the menu); instead of chicken nuggets, there are chicken goujons and battered chicken fillet. On most days, there is at least one choice of processed junk-style food, and, if Jamie Oliver’s programmes are anything to go by, most of the kids probably choose them.

And what about the vegetables? I remember when my daughter had school dinners, she would come home saying she had eaten pizza and chips – hardly a balanced meal (talk about high carb!). When I asked why she hadn’t had some salad with it, she said she wasn’t allowed (!?). Was salad only for vegetarians? Or those with another choice of main course? Baffling.

Talking to some other mums, it seems that most of the children end up choosing highly unsuitable combinations of foods and on most days only eat the junky, sweet bits anyway (glad to say, even some of the perfect Swedish kids said that given half a chance they would prefer to have beef burgers rather than traditional meatballs).

My children won’t have school dinners. My daughter claims that: a) they look disgusting; b) you have to choose which option to have in advance, and then you are forced to sit next to people who have made the same choice, which usually means eating alongside some nit-infested weirdo. My son is simply too fussy. There was one nightmarish lunch when he was forced to join the hot dinner hordes due to a catastrophic leak in his lunchbox. He has never forgotten the horror of being faced with chicken in gravy (though it sounds OK to me, I remember pasty meat and gelatinous gravy from my own school days, so I sympathise).

A recent study showed that only two in five parents give their children a packed lunch. Most of these parents are classified as either “persisting parents”, who aim to give their children the best food they can, or “pampering parents” who pander to the demands of their fussy children. I’m a bit of both.

After many years of making packed lunches I am still searching for the perfect combination of food my children will actually eat, and healthy, Jamie Oliver-style nutritious fare. Give me an article or book on quick and healthy lunchbox ideas and I will instantly read it in the expectant hope that somehow it will provide the answer to all my problems. Often as not, there will be suggestions of cold pasta salads, home-made wholemeal muffins, and vegetable dips with humus. I know before I’ve tried them that: a) neither of my kids will eat cold pasta/couscous (we never have enough leftovers anyway, and I’m blowed if I have time to cook this in advance or in the morning); b) usually I do not have time/initiative/energy to make muffins mid-week; c) dips are rarely touched and tend to spill.

In a wave of concern for the quality of food my children consume, I spend a fortune on organic fruit bars and alternative crackers/crispbreads. This has worked for while, but my daughter has begun to get teased for having weird food that looks like Play-Doh and she’s begged me to stopped putting it in her lunchbox.

Rather than completely go with the crowd and fill my children’s lunchboxes with crisps, chocolate biscuits and processed cheese – I’m too much of a “persisting parent” for that – I’ve decided to put in at least one, different, treaty, unhealthy snack each day. That way they only get sugary drinks, crisps, chocolate biscuits etc. on one day of the week, and that’s the best I can do.

But if anyone does have a nutritious, palatable, non-time intensive, non-weird-looking packed lunch idea, I’m all ears.

This entry was posted in Letter from Britain and tagged , by Miranda Irving. Bookmark the permalink.

About Miranda Irving

Miranda is married to Alex, with two children, Lucy and Jamie. They live in Farnborough, Hampshire, but have lived in Indonesia, Oman, and more recently Abu Dhabi, UAE. In a past life Miranda was a social anthropologist, so travelling was always a great interest and passion. Now she's back home again, Miranda has embarked on a freelance journalism course in an attempt to find a career that can fit in with the children's school times and possible further moves in the future. Miranda also writes for and ExpatwomanUK section.

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