How school dinners are chosen and what is on the menu for children in Derbyshire
Children need a healthy breakfast and a nutritional lunch every day – something which can be carefully monitored by parents during periods of lockdown.
But, with youngsters now back in their classrooms following a return earlier this month we are looking at what children eat in school and how the menu is chosen.
In Derbyshire, around 50,000 meals a day are provided to nursery, infant, junior and secondary school aged children by the Derbyshire Catering Service (DCS) – the largest education catering provider in the county, run by Derbyshire County Council.
Catering development officer Katie Woods works with the Derbyshire Catering Service (DCS) and is a nutritionist responsible for devising what schoolchildren across the county are given to eat at lunch time.
When it comes to choosing what actually goes on the menu, however, it is a team effort and is somewhat based on feedback from staff in school kitchens, as well as parents and pupils too.
Katie said: “We conduct surveys on the current menu to find out what is going well and what they're not so keen on. We hold development days with the catering staff and pupils sample the dishes when we’re allowed.
"That all works into creating the next menu and we also work with our suppliers as they might have a product they think would work well on our menu and we’re always open to seeing what they have to offer.
"We also look at what national trends are, especially for secondary schools. For the new menu after Easter we’ve got sliders and mac and cheese – again trying to be on trend and to keep the interest alive.”
School dinners have been in and out of the news for years, with recent troubles during the pandemic bringing them to the forefront once again.
However long gone are the days of Turkey Twizzlers on the menu, in part due to a tireless campaign by chef Jamie Oliver which resulted in new government food and nutrition standards for school meals in 2015.
Katie explained: “The remit that we’re set by the school food standards, so that plans out what we can and can’t include within the menus. So, it sets out portion sizes and food group standards.
"We have to provide fresh fruit and vegetables every day; we can only serve starchy foods cooked in oil no more than twice a week, that’s things like roast potatoes and chips; we’re only allowed to have preformed meats on offer once a week in primary and twice in secondary, so you couldn’t have sausages, burgers and meatballs all in the same week.”
Katie began working with DCS just as the new government standards were introduced and said that school meals have evolved significantly over the years to cater for every dietary requirement.
“We're currently creating over 180 different varieties – compared to around 10 six years ago – of the menu that will go out after Easter. That might be dairy-free; it might be dairy, gluten, soya, egg free,” she said.
"The menu changes twice yearly, so we have a spring/summer menu which runs from after the Easter holidays until October half-term and then we have an autumn/winter which runs after half-term up until Easter.
"We try and keep them a little bit seasonal as much as we can and try and bring in different dishes to keep the menu on-trend but also keep the regulars – the dishes that the children know and love like the roast dinner wednesday – to get those in as well.”
As of January, all Primary Schools catered for by DCS have been accredited with at least the silver Food for Life Served Here (FfLSH) award and all Secondary Schools the bronze FfLSH award.
The FfLSH award goes beyond the standards set by the Government, according to Katie, who said it focuses on the quality of food served also extends to the classroom to help children learn about the food they eat, following the journey from field to plate.
DCS also supports suppliers within the county, food sourcing includes eggs and milk from Holdsworth Foods in Chesterfield, fruit and vegetables from both John Palin and Tomson's in Buxton, and Beef from Lowerhurst Organic.
Katie added: "People’s interest in food has developed over the years and we’re so proud of the quality of the food we serve. We use all UK farm assured meats and use a lot of brands that children are familiar with such as Quorn, Young’s and Yeo Valley.
"But, over the years the menu has definitely changed – it might look the same in the same cases but what’s in there might not be.
"For example we’re constantly striving to improve the health of what we’re serving so like our sponge cake, over the last six years has got 50 per cent less sugar in than it used to have and it includes whole meal flour now as well.
"We’ve reduced our sugar purchased by 35 per cent in the past four years. You can still see there's a cookie on the menu but because we bake everything in house we have that control and ability to make those recalculations.
"We’ve also developed a lot of bite size desserts so there’s a small bite size piece of the pudding and a piece of fruit to go alongside it.
"And, our caterers are so creative with the fruit they offer, it’s presented in a really positive, colourful and attractive way.
"Often, the fruit offer is put first on the counter so we’re actively promoting a healthy choice without the children even realising.”