When it comes to school catering, there can be a number of challenges for those producing and preparing the menu. There are several things to be considered when curating a menu for children.

In this blog, we take a look into these points, the challenges they present and how schools can overcome them.

1. Nutrition
It’s no secret that Childhood obesity is becoming a crisis in the UK, which presents as our first challenge.

In 2017/18 it’s believed that 22.4% of children aged 4 to 5 in England were overweight and 34.3% of children aged 10 to 11 in England were also overweight*. Nutritious meals not only combat obesity, but they have also been found to improve performance at school by releasing energy slowly throughout the day and increasing attention spans.

While some pre-made elements on the menu (sauces, pastry cases etc) are required to help with time and budget restraints, it’s important to take a look at ingredients and frequency of use.

The amount of sugar children are consuming is contributing to the obesity crisis which has lead to a nationwide requirement to reduce children’s sugar intake by 2020. Making healthier choices on suppliers of pre-made products can drastically improve the nutritional value of school dinners. Where possible, replacing pre-made products with freshly prepared options can be even more beneficial. This doesn’t necessarily mean preparing meals will take longer, simply switching out ingredients and using healthier alternatives can be enough to make a long-lasting impact on the nutritional value of a meal.

2. Dietary Requirements, Allergies & Intolerances
There is an increasing number of dietary requirements in schools, catering for them all can become tricky, potentially increasing waste, time and budget. One answer is to combine dietary requirements were possible. Vegan curry dishes, for example, are cost-effective, nutritious and cater for a number of diets & intolerances.

Allergies must be managed well in all catering environments, but it’s especially important when catering for schools that everyone is educated in allergy management and awareness. Understanding the supply chain of all your ingredients and where they could have possibly come into contact with items like nuts is vital. You can even self-audit here to see how well your school is managing allergy awareness already. Intolerances are not a serious as allergies as they are not fatal but, they must be taken seriously as they can cause children a lot of discomfort.

Dairy and gluten are the most common food intolerances in the UK, thankfully, there are a rising number of ingredients and recipes that avoid these ingredients entirely. Some menus can be tailored to avoid using dairy and gluten products entirely, allowing all students to consume the same dishes.

Making staff aware of which pupils have intolerances and allergies can dramatically reduce the chance of children consuming items that will make them ill.

3. Fussy Eaters
The number one challenge for anyone producing food for children is whether or not they will actually eat it, especially when it comes to presenting children with healthier options at school!

You may even find a Childs first encounter with certain ingredients happens in the school dinner hall. Looking at a menu from a Child’s point of view can help you successfully produce meals they enjoy. Appearance is very important, some schools have found success in replicating their own healthy fast food favourites. Think flatbread pizza stacked with vegetables and breaded fish served with mushy peas.

Hiding nutrients in children’s dishes is a trick many parents swear by which can be successfully replicated at school. Fruit & vegetables can be hidden in pasta dishes, pudding, juices, smoothies and a number of other fun dishes.

4. Budgets
Budgets often dictate ingredient quality and the number of processed items on offer at schools. There is more of a challenge at the moment, with the price of some ingredients increasing due to supplier uncertainty around the political climate**.

The good news is that there are ways around budget restrictions when preparing food. Seasonal menus are a great way to start reducing costs. When ingredients are in season their price point is lower than the rest of the year, it’s also better for the environment reducing carbon footprints and supporting local producers. Seasonally reviewing what is on the menu can also allow catering teams to get creative with new ideas and ingredients, offering children more variety throughout the year.

When it comes to choosing meat and fish, opting for unusual cuts can save money without having to compromise on flavour or nutritional value.

5. Restaurant Design
Space is usually the biggest challenge in restaurant design for schools. Utilising the space you have in the most effective way is vital to an efficient line and can allow for a more exciting menu to be prepared and served.

Think about what the kitchen needs to accomplish each day and how a better layout, new equipment or a new servery platform could improve your current processes. Don’t forget about the children that will be using the space, you can include fun colours and easy to use furniture into the design as well as more practical elements like plenty of lighting and even soundproofing which will ensure the dining area does not disturb other studying.

If you would like to know more about designing a restaurant space for a school take a look at our blog here.

In Conclusion
Like in cooking itself, balance is crucial when it comes to successful school catering. The challenges presented to schools can be overcome with imagination, planning and an element of fun for the children.