How to achieve excellence in catering

Sue Birchall, long-standing business manager, discusses how you can ensure you are providing cost-effective and student-satisfactory catering in your school

The days of a school dining hall serving measly portions of rice pudding are thankfully behind us. The nutrition of students remains fundamental to their learning and physical development, however. So how can catering services seek to feed hungry stomachs, deliver gourmet meals and skim pennies of an SBMs budget?

Of all the support services that occur during the school day, catering remains as one of the most important for ensuring that our students are at their best to benefit from their education. As adults, we understand the influence that nutrition has on our performance in every area of our lives. If we are hungry concentration is difficult and if we do not eat a healthy varied diet our sleep, resilience, physical and mental ability is affected.

School meals were first introduced in 1906 and were free for all students. The idea was that if it was compulsory for children to attend school a hot meal should be provided, initially this was breakfast with very limited choice. In 1944 it was made compulsory for all local authorities to provide school meals in all of their schools, this was complemented with free school milk for primary children. At this time the cost was shouldered by the parent except for those most at need.

School meals were affected by the decision by the conservative government in the 1980s when the provision was put out to competitive tender. The result was a push to provide cheaper meals by the contractors fighting to put meals on the table at the best (often cheapest!) price. This affected the quality of provision and the nutritional value diminished, research suggested that school children received better nutrition in the 1950s than the 1990s.

I am sure you all know the story of the Turkey Twizzler!

The rise in childhood obesity the government to bring in nutritional guidelines for suppliers, initially demanding written measured nutritional information for each product. A more balanced approach is now used although there are still strict rules around what can be provided.

Schools have the ability to choose how they provide their catering offer but there are things that need to be considered for all settings. The government guidelines must be adhered to and many schools chose to outsource their provision. This is a contract and has to be managed as such, frameworks are available and it is sensible to look at these as they ensure that the providers are viable and fit for purpose.

The provision for primary schools is fairly standard as the meals are provided at lunchtime and generally follow a weekly menu. Parents and carers have a significant influence on what their children eat so the menus need to satisfy adult expectations as well as the statutory requirements. Many primary schools have breakfast and after school clubs, food offerings for these are generally outside of the catering contract to allow schools to provide for the different activities.

In secondary the provision is required to be a little more varied often offering before school, break time and lunchtime provision. The clientele also tends to be a little more demanding due to the ability to make independent choices with little influence from their parents and carers. There is some pressure from what is ‘fashionable’ to eat i.e., panini as opposed to sandwiches and also student expectation in line with their experiences in outside eateries.

The free school meal allowance that is set centrally is what the provider and schools can expect as set income. This dictates that students must be able to come and purchase a hot meal, main and dessert for this amount. At primary this is fairly easy to achieve, at secondary more of a challenge. The rest of the provision needs to be attractive to students to ensure that the customer base is good enough to ensure financial viability.

So how do SBLs ensure that their provision is attractive enough to ensure that it is viable and pays for itself?

Going cashless

Easy ways to pay helps the parents and makes the offer more attractive.

Ability to order online and individual days

Often very popular for primary schools, helps to pick up orders when Mum has run out of bread for instance. At secondary parents regain a little control over what their children eat.

Pop up catering

This is popular at secondary schools but can include primaries, for instance having a pizza or pasta stand, salad bar or theme days.


Be aware that students will want to ‘eat with their friends’. It is important that there is a varied choice which covers all values, some parents may not be able to afford to fund all of the time. Consider offers such as meal deals and even loyalty cards to get free items, all very attractive.

Pupil voice

As your customer their opinion if very valid and can ensure that you are providing food of choice. Have taster sessions for new offers, let the school council survey the school community for new ideas and wants. Consider whether school food can be given as prizes, I have funded a free school meal as prizes for art competitions, surprising how popular this is and helps the provider.

Outside catering

If you can offer your caterer opportunities for further revenue they will be able keen to do some of the above. Use them to cater for school events, prize evenings or staff ‘do’s, it will all help their income which helps you.

Above all it is important that your provision is the best for your students. Write it into your business strategy and revisit it often to ensure that it remains fit for purpose.

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