You are what you eat, as the saying goes. Yet when I’m out and about in schools, a huge part of the lunchtime experience (and, so often, a huge part of the challenge facing schools) isn’t so much what children eat….but where they eat.
We did some research with pupils on this several years ago, and the results were intriguing. Ask a young person what was more important to them about their lunchtime – particularly at secondary school – and the look and feel of the dining space won hands down over what was on the menu. If they didn’t rate the dining environment; if they had to queue for ages; if they couldn’t get a seat; if they felt cramped or rushed, or that the canteen was noisy or smelly, they simply wouldn’t eat there. Fair enough.
And that’s why a big part of my job, when I’m helping schools wanting to improve and develop their school catering services, is looking at that dining environment. You can have the most fabulous, nutritious and tasty menu in the world but if the kids can’t sit and enjoy their meal in a pleasant space, your efforts aren’t going to reach their full potential. When we’re looking for a place to eat on the high street, we judge first by what the place looks like before we even sit down and grab a menu: why should young people be any different?
It’s easy to assume that this means spending huge amounts of capital. But take a step back. First, you need to eat there yourself. How do you feel, as a customer in that dining space? Sit with your meal and watch how the room is working for pupils – there may be common patterns and problems which you just won’t see unless you eat in the canteen yourself. Next, find out from your pupils what sort of dining room they’d like to see – a simple questionnaire run by your school council will do the trick. What don’t they like about your dining space at the moment? What’s on their ‘wish-list’ for the perfect dining room? Then think about the things on their list which you can fix easily. A dull and dismal paint job can be brightened up relatively inexpensively – get your art class thinking about design ideas for the walls; it’s incredible what a personalised mural can do.
If it’s the layout of chairs and tables that’s fuelling your queues or driving pupils away because they can’t get a seat, try shifting it around and see what happens. You’ve lost nothing by trying, and you might gain valuable new space.
Remember that pupils often respond most positively to dining spaces which emulate the places where they spend time on the high street. Don’t assume you have to spend a lot to create a high street look – gather ideas from pupils first, then think about what you can do with any budget you have. If you’re working on a shoestring, could your dining room be the beneficiary of your school’s fundraising efforts this year?
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that one size never fits all here. There are many, many different options and solutions for making your canteen a more pleasant place to be. We’ve worked with schools which have all sorts of budgets: from those with nothing to spend at all, using older furniture in a new and creative way; to those spending a few hundred quid to switch to proper plates and cutlery; to those raising thousands of pounds for a full overhaul designed by their pupils. What they all share is the understanding that a good school lunch is about far more than just the food – and that it all starts with really listening to what your customers want from their dining room. Without exception, investing a bit of time to improve your dining space so it’s as good as your food will always pay back a good return.