The future of school catering: inclusivity and promoting healthy student lunch menus

by | Apr 20, 2024 | Blog

Nutritious food is vital to our wellbeing, especially in the early years, for children to grow and develop physically and mentally. School meals are a great opportunity to introduce healthy eating from a young age – for all. Inclusive, healthy school meals ensure all children get to eat nutritious food without food inequity. They should be able to enjoy high-quality and safe meals regardless of differences in social backgrounds, religious faith or health conditions.

Inclusivity in school catering

As per the 2023 School Meal Report, the majority of parents stated that school meals have improved the quality of life for their children. Inclusivity in school catering is more important than ever in the current economy. It can combat food insecurity, social exclusion, nutritional deficiency and health vulnerabilities.

Diverse dietary needs and preferences

The world of food today is bigger, more diverse, constantly evolving and widely accessible. Social media, television and billboards expose children to the various forms and standards in which food gets consumed around the world. Every child with a smartphone is aware of the latest food trends. Gen Alpha (birthyear from 2010 to 2023) and Gen Z (birthyear from 1997 to 2012) have a more refined palate compared to other generations.

Food must be nutritious, fresh and delicious. Menus should stay relevant with innovation and upgrades to appease discerning young minds. Caterers must keep up with the changing food culture while enhancing nutritional value.

There is also a growing demand for plant-based food by schoolchildren who have adopted or are favourable to vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian diets (semi-vegetarian diets), especially in secondary schools and 6th form. Ethical veganism has protection under the Equality Act 2010 in the UK. It means schools should accommodate a vegan’s right to freedom of conscience and philosophical belief. All children, those receiving free school meals and those paying, should have vegan options and also cover dietary preferences such as access to halal food for better inclusivity.

Managing allergies and food intolerance

Some children in the UK live with food allergies, and it is not uncommon to find at least one student in most classrooms whose diets are restricted for such reasons. Under the Children & Families Act 2014, it is a legal requirement for schools and caterers to make arrangements for pupils with medical conditions in school, including food allergies. Ensuring those with food allergies receive allergen-free meals makes the school a safe place for them. Increased confidence in allergen management is a factor that contributes to higher meal uptake.

Food intolerances can affect children in varying degrees, the most common being lactose intolerance. Bespoke menu options for children with food intolerances widen inclusivity in school meals. Enabling a digital ordering system allows parents to pre-order meals for children with special dietary needs. It also allows school caterers to communicate and coordinate directly with parents. Parents can monitor what children eat at school, too.

Creating an inclusive atmosphere through dining experiences

Celebrating diversity with food can increase inclusivity. Themed food that reflects multi-cultural events like Easter, Ramadan, Diwali, Chinese New Year, or Passover can help children learn about various foods from different cultures as well as learn more about their fellow students from different ethnic backgrounds. Caterers can also hold cooking demos to show them how to make popular traditional foods from across the globe.

Themed food or specials can highlight the importance of eco-conscious eating, such as meat-free Mondays. It can remove the stigma attached to vegan and vegetarian diets and enlighten pupils on how what we eat can impact the planet.

Importance of healthy student lunch menus

The nutritional value of school meals makes all the difference. Studies indicate healthy school meals improve children’s physical and mental wellbeing. They are the stepping stones to a lifetime of healthy eating habits.

Nutritional guidelines

The UK government has set standards for school food in England. These strive to achieve balanced nutrition for children. However, school caterers can set the bar higher with innovative use of local produce, seasonal ingredients and creative menus that utilise more nutrient-dense and healthy meals. They can refine and improve standards every step of the way, from sourcing to serving.

Collab with nutritionists

Nutritionists can ensure meals and portion sizes meet the recommended calorie intake and nutrients. They are also imperative to designing bespoke meals for special dietary needs. All school caterers must look to science to deliver affordable and healthy meals that all pupils can enjoy.

Sustainable practices

Sustainability in catering is just as important as nutrition. One could say the two are interrelated. Sustainable food practices reduce costs, increase nutritional value, improve taste and texture, and promote healthy food systems.

AiP, inclusivity and healthy school meals

We want to feed healthy, tasty and exciting food to all schoolchildren. Our inclusivity efforts cover special dietary needs, allergens and dietary preferences. We have a stringent allergen management process. All our recipes carefully consider allergies and food intolerances, with allergen-free menus for those with medical diets.

We have implemented Healthy Eating Weeks at several sites across the country. With help from our expert nutritionists, we create a balanced, nourishing meal service adapted to students’ lifestyles that go well beyond government school food standards.

Learn about all our food safety standards and certifications that ensure safe, inclusive and diverse school meals.