Making Universal Infant Free School Meals just that

Caroline Morgan, chief executive of Dorset-based Local Food Links, gives us her top tips for catering for children with special diets.

The Universal Infantscaled_infant-boy-lunch_190x0 Free School Meals programme is by its very definition for every child in state funded schools in reception, years One and Two. Yet there’s one particular challenge which is not only causing schools, caterers and local authorities a headache, but risking some children not getting the free meals they’re entitled to. And that challenge is provision for children with food allergies or who need special diets such as gluten free food. I know that with lots of forward planning and partnership working with suppliers, schools, parents and pupils, it’s still possible to deliver free school meals for all children.

Local Food Links Ltd are currently preparing and transporting over 3,000 school meals from 4 hub kitchens to 31 primary and middle schools. Here are our top tips for catering for children with special diets.

Cook from scratch: At Local Food Links we’ve devised a ‘half-termly menu’ which lasts six or seven weeks. All the meals are prepared from scratch, sourcing seasonal, high quality food from local suppliers. If you prepare all your meals from scratch you’ve got more control over the nutritional quality and what’s in each dish.

Speak to your suppliers: Make sure the information you hold on each ingredient is up-to-date. In preparation for the EU Allergen Regulations, Gillian Reynolds, my Catering Manager, was able to set up a spreadsheet listing all the ingredients in each dish. Gillian called every supplier to get the allergen information for every ingredient. We recorded allergen information, noting if the 14 allergens were present.

Communication is key: We prefer to speak to parents directly about their children’s dietary requirements. This is recorded on a special dietary requirements form, which has the name and allergy information of the child, and the contact details of the parent. Each hub kitchen and school has an up-to-date list of children with special dietary requirements. The information is shared with the office staff, the catering staff, the cooks serving the meals, and the midday supervisors. This ensures that everyone is fully aware of all aspects.

We’ve devised an online ordering system which is accessed by parents and school staff. Parents can order their child’s meals weekly, or for a whole half term. Ordering in advance helps make sure that each child has their preferred meal. The parents can check the ingredients of each dish by hovering over the name of each menu item, and then make an appropriate choice for their child’s dietary requirements.

Staff training is crucial: During the first week of December 2014, all members of staff received an internal training session on the forthcoming EU Allergen Regulations. The training made sure all staff were aware of the legal requirements, where to access up-to-date information and how to convey this to other members of staff within the school, parents and children. Each member of staff has completed a Food Standards Agency online training course on allergens, and each hub kitchen and school have received and are displaying Food Standards Agency posters. Training was also provided free of charge to school lunchtime staff.

Policies and procedures: Local Food Links provide a ‘transported school meal service’, parents order the meals in advance and every school receives a bespoke set of lunches. We plan for all eventualities. If the food order changes because of the weather, or if there’s a different cook or midday supervisor, there’s a checklist which anyone can follow.
Shared responsibility: Catering for children with special dietary requirements is a shared responsibility, between the caterer, the school and the parent. Some conditions can be life threatening. It’s so important that everyone involved is aware of their responsibility and plays their part in order to keep the child safe.

I hope these tips will help you deliver healthy, tasty meals to all children choosing school meals.

Caroline Morgan, chief executive of Dorset-based Local Food Links

Catering for allergies and special diets in your school
Caroline’s approach shows us how it’s possible to cater for allergies and special diets as part of your school meals service. We recommended that schools develop a policy and procedure to make sure that a request for a special diet is handled in an efficient and appropriate way. It’s good practice for these requirements to be written into any contracts that are developed with caterers. Catering providers and local authorities may already have policies and procedures in place.

For more information on UIFSM, catering for pupils with food allergies and other special dietary requirements visit:


Nicer than eating off the table

Children’s Food Trust Head of Schools Jeremy Boardman reflects on progress one month after the national launch of universal infant free school meals. 

It’s been called a golden age for school food. Cooking is back on the curriculum and new, easier-to-use school food standards come into force in January. But perhaps the most impressive step has been that around 16,000 schools have tackled a huge range of challenges in a short time to be able to provide universal infant free school meals this term.

So if you think August was quiet, then spare a thought for those thousands of schools which had this demanding new deadline looming. Since then, we’ve seen all kinds of stories in the press about how successful or otherwise the launch has been. Yes, there have been bumps in the road, but what we’re seeing is an overwhelming enthusiasm and determination from schools to make this work – and from what we’re hearing, demand for these meals is soaring.

We work in partnership with LACA (Lead Association for Catering in Education) to provide the national free Advice Service, set up especially to help schools, caterers and local authorities achieve this leap in demand. So we’ve had a privileged view of just how challenging it has been for some schools and of the hard work that continues behind the scenes to make sure all infants get these good meals.

At Haddenham St Mary’s School in Buckinghamshire, where they previously provided no school meals, we helped them be ready on day one to feed 100 infants.  The school is having a completely new kitchen enabling them to prepare fresh, healthy meals everyday for every child in reception, year 1 and year 2. And until that’s ready, a small, local food provider within the village is supplying home cooked meals using the produce that the children have grown from the garden.

Demand has doubled for infants’ school meals at St Peter and St Paul’s Catholic Primary School in Kent, with numbers jumping from around 30 to more than 60 every day. And they’re actually eating what’s on their plates. In fact, it’s the simplest ideas that can make the most difference. Switching from using flight trays to proper plates has made a huge difference, with one child reported to have said “it’s much nicer than eating off the table!”

Fairfield Primary School, Cumbria has gone from an all packed lunches situation to now providing 140 infants with free, tasty and nutritious lunches every day thanks to an external provider. In fact, it’s working so well, they’re extending the offer of a hot school meal to 380 pupils at the school.

But it’s not all glamorous work. Our advisors helped this school plan for the equipment needed, storage facilities, energy supply and internet cabling work, pointed the school in the direction of good suppliers and of course the extra funding.

Three West Berkshire schools used special PKL KitchenPods to meet demand. Westwood Farm Infant School, Cold Ash St Mark’s CE Primary School and Hungerford Primary School each had a different problem. But using the pods in different ways meant they were ready to provide lunch onsite at the start of the new term.

Other schools have brought in new hot food counters, new tables and started using online ordering to help ease the changes.

All this is great news for children. And the work continues. Our free Advice Service remains open throughout the school year ahead and, as term one of this new chapter approaches half way, we’re thrilled that we continue to see more brilliant examples of how schools are providing all infants with free nutritious meals.

The Advice Service is available at  or Freephone 0800 680 0080.

The ‘My Best School Dinner’ competition shows an appetite for school meals in Somerset

The Children’s Food Trust is working with Somerset County Council to help schools in the region increase the number of children having school meals. This work is part of the Department for Education and Children’s Food Trust programme to increase school meal take up in junior & secondary schools as well as academies.

Having seen the dedication and belief in improving the health and wellbeing of children in Somerset and the way school meals are held central to this ambition, it was a real honour for us to be invited down to Somerset to judge the ‘My Best School Dinner’ competition.

The competition challenged children from across the county to create their ideal school meal with the winning entries being incorporated in to Somerset’s school menu cycle for the coming year. The aim was to get children interested in the food they eat and grow excitement about the fact that some children would also get to eat the very meals they invented.

There was a fantastic response to the competition with more than 300 entries – 11 dishes made the final which was hosted at Frogmary Green Farm in South Petherton. The finalists were aged between 6 and 14 years and were both superbly competent and enthusiastic cooks. They were extremely eager to get started and produced their meals in ample time before impressing the owners of the training kitchen with their tidying up skills too!

Judging was an extremely difficult job with each and every dish being both tasty and attractively presented. The three winners were Emily Morrison with her ‘All in one roast’ – beautifully presented within a large Yorkshire pudding, Alfie Blackwell whose ‘Lasagne Surprise’ gave a new twist to an old favourite utilising wraps in place of pasta and Saffron Beake who wowed the judges with her beautifully presented and delicious tomato and basil tart.

What was immediately obvious when judging this was that the competition was a fantastic way to engage children in what they eat. Hundreds of children got involved and for some it was the first time they’d really taken time to consider the components of a healthy meal together with actually creating their own favourite dish. Of course it also has the added benefit of potentially increasing the number of children wanting to try the winner’s dishes, especially if it was created by their class mates. I’m sure all three dishes will prove to be popular additions to the new menu cycles.
Getting children excited about and interested in school food is what our Increasing School Meal Take Up programme is all about. We’re helping junior and secondary schools, pupil referral units and academies to increase the number of pupils eating school meals.

The benefits of this are clear, it will mean children have a healthy, nutritious meal at lunch and as a result are likely to learn better in the afternoon. Obviously there’s also a financial benefit to schools – with increased take-up making the provision more economically viable and raising additional money that can be put back in to the education of the children. Our programme has been shown to increase take-up by at least 5%.

Our unique support package is available to all local authorities in the South East, South West and East of England. Those local authorities who sign up will receive specialist training so they can deliver the Children’s Food Trust ‘Small Step Improvement programme’, Food Dudes ‘Dining Room Experience’ and a specific marketing plan developed by Elygra Marketing to schools in their area.

To find out more about the programme please visit us here or call 0114 2996930.

School stories: Scunthorpe C of E

A primary school in Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire, has recently set up a lunch time club where children who receive free school meals can go during the school holidays and eat a healthy hot meal together with teachers who volunteer their time to come and chat with their pupils. Head teacher at Scunthorpe C of E, Jennie Fullwood, told us how for some of school’s more vulnerable youngsters, the club can be a real “lifeline”.

Here at Scunthorpe C of E, many of our pupils come from areas of high deprivation, and that’s something that as a school, we’re really aware of and want to do what we can to support our students and their families.

A lot of our children receive free school meals and we know that for some of them, this can be the only nutritious meal they get that day. To go a whole week, or an entire summer holiday, without regular, nutritious food can be incredibly damaging for them, so we decided that opening our doors during school breaks was definitely something worth investing in.

The club is funded entirely by the school itself, partly by pupil premium, and by other local companies and Trust’s which I approached for their support.

The club was something I’d thought about for a while for a range of different reasons. For a child that is living in an unstable home or has a family who is facing challenging times, just knowing that they have adults around who they can trust and confide in is absolutely vital – which is why we decided that we needed some sort of provision for them out of term time.

Our staff are incredibly supportive, and many of them have volunteered their time to come along and help serve the kids their meals and do activities with them – like basketball and crafts. The children come for a couple of hours and many of them tell us that they wish they could stay longer, and that the lunch they have just eaten is their favourite meal they’ve had all week.

It creates a brilliant atmosphere and really strong relationships between our pupils and staff when they can sit down, in non-uniform, and chat about their day or anything that might be worrying them. It gives them that interaction they might not otherwise have and highlights to them how important it is to sit down and eat good, nutritious food.

Although the benefits are clear for her pupil’s health and well being, there are some challenges. Currently we have around 30 places – all for children on free school meals – but if children don’t show up for whatever reason, we have food that goes to waste. I have staffing costs for my cooks and teaching assistants, to make sure that we can run a constant and reliable service, so we have to make sure the club remains viable.

We’ve thought about creating additional paid for places so that those on free school meals don’t feel singled out, and we can use the money to create a pot of additional funding to keep those existing spaces free for those who need them.

For us, it’s really important that we take a whole school approach, and consider how what is happening in our pupil’s lives may be effecting their education – our lunch club is just one, but a very important, part of that.

Is your school doing really important work around school food? Do you have a story you’d like to share or an issue you’d like to hear others opinions on? Get in touch! Email our media team at

Is Universal Infant Free School Meals mission impossible?

??????????????????????????????????????????????????The weeks and months are certainly flying by, before we know it September will be upon us and all state funded infant and junior schools will be required to provide all reception, year 1 and 2 infant pupils with free school meals.

The Children’s Food Trust and LACA (Lead Association for CAtering in Education) have been running the national advice line for nearly two months now and while its clear many schools are ready for September others still have a lot to do with what can feel like a huge job.

So, is this mission really possible?

Here are five common issues we’ve been asked about and some practical tips to achieving success.

Managing change
This is going to mean changes on many levels. And changing things can put up barriers; people can feel threatened. So involve them from the outset. Find out what your pupils and parents want and what gets them excited, and work with that.

  • Start listening and start talking about it: communicate with everyone who will be affected – caterers, parents and children, teaching and supervisory staff.
  • Use your assemblies, website, letters, surveys and meetings to get their views and ideas, to explain your plan and the benefits it will bring.
  • Invite parents to sample a school meal perhaps on special event days, to encourage their support.

Dining spaces at full stretch
Chances are you can’t build a new one, so think about different ways to use the space you have.

  • Try improving the layout of tables and chairs to create a better flow.
  • Perhaps there are other spaces you can use. One school involved pupils in design ideas to transform four old classrooms into dining spaces, each with 40 seats, and at low cost. Pupils loved this sense of ownership.
  • Consider using outside spaces – especially during summer months.

Making time for everyone to eat
It’s one thing creating new space, but how do you create time? Yet it’s really important to allow children sufficient time to sit, eat and socialise during lunch. Try these ideas.

  • Stagger dining times for different year groups
  • Create a second servery or cutlery point to cut queuing time and bottlenecks
  • Introduce pre-ordering. Some primary schools let children choose their meal during registration and give them a coloured sticker, coloured wrist band or token to show when they collect their lunch.

Having enough staff to cope
More meals, more work, more hands needed on deck. How will you cope?

  • Think about ways the children can help. They love being in charge of jobs!
  • Ask the children to serve themselves. Even most infants can manage this. It can help them control their own portion sizes and reduce waste too
  • Give other children responsibilities for setting tables, collecting their own cutlery and clearing their own plates. One school found this saved 20 minutes of staff time every day.

Small kitchens or no kitchens
So where are you going to cook all these extra meals? Even with no kitchen, it is still possible.

  • Consider installing a ‘pod’ (mobile) kitchen as a fast, cost-effective solution
  • Bring food in from a hub kitchen, which may supply several smaller schools
  • Simplify your menus to simplify production processes
  • Find out what funding is available for your school.

There is also lots of advice and support including case studies from schools who have already made changes to their services on the Children’s Food Trust website at .

And don’t forget our advice line is open 8.30am to 5.00pm for more advice and help, so give us a call – it’s FREE! 0800 680 0080.

Jo Walker is a Children’s Food Advisor for the Children’s Food Trust and works in the project team for the UIFSM Advice Service.

They are where they eat

??????????????????????????????????????????????????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.

This blog was first published by Educatering Magazine, November 2013. Jeremy Boardman heads up our support for schools. Email Jeremy.

Five school food blogs we all need to remember from 2013

??????????????????????????????????????????????????The TV’s saturated with ‘review of the year’ shows, lists of ‘2013’s most embarrassing celebrity moments’ and special editions of every gameshow going right now. So I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon, and share my picks of the school food blogs I’ve loved this year:

  • This one from school food writer Siobhan O’Neill pulls out some wonderful themes about school meals in Japan – from which we could all learn a lot!
  • In February, our former Chief Executive, Judy Hargadon, wasn’t impressed with some school meals comments by Iceland boss, Malcolm Walker
  • We can’t let 2013 go by without mentioning the School Food Plan. Millions of words have been written about the themes of the plan, but this blog for Mumsnet by the plan’s co-author, John Vincent, summed things up beautifully
  • The announcement that all children in Reception and years 1 and 2 at school will get free school meals from September 2014 had steam coming off the keyboards of commentators on the left, right and centre – this debate on the Guardian’s blog is a great read
  • And this piece from John McDermott on the FT blog was another good one. We’re still waiting for the government’s proposals on how free school meals will work with Universal Credit, but a free lunch at school for all children living in poverty should be the starting point.

What were your favourite school foodie blogs of 2013? Drop your links below!

Jeremy Boardman heads up our schools team. Email Jeremy.