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Exploring the past, present and future of school dinners in Norfolk

School cooks from Norse preparing meals in a kitchen. Picture: lee Blanchflower

School cooks from Norse preparing meals in a kitchen. Picture: lee Blanchflower

Blanc Photography 2013

Being adaptable and offering interesting as well as healthy school dinner options to children will be key to maintaining their uptake in Norfolk, a catering boss has said.

Children tucking into a healthy lunch at St Williams School, Thorpe.   pic taken 29th sept 1986   c12714  pic to be used in edp dml 21st sept 2011Children tucking into a healthy lunch at St Williams School, Thorpe. pic taken 29th sept 1986 c12714 pic to be used in edp dml 21st sept 2011

The country is preparing for National School Meals Week (November 12 to 16), which aims to change perceptions around school meals and celebrate the people who provide them.

The catering arm of Norwich-based facilities group Norse serves daily meals in schools and academies with some 39,200 students, and provides more than 25,000 primary school meals in Norfolk and Suffolk every day.

Figures from Norse show that the average take-up of paid school meals among key stage two pupils (aged seven to 11) among the schools it serves is 23pc, while some 70pc of key stage one pupils (aged five to seven) take universal infant free school meals.

Andrew Lipscomb, catering operations director at Norse, said there had been a small increase in both free and paid-for school meals over the past year.

He attributed this to the company attending more parents evenings and assemblies at the schools it works with, providing menu tasting sessions and holding cooking clubs.

He said: “We also change the food offer to support the curriculum. For example, food from around the world to cover geography, or food from the USA for American history. We also worked with one school to provide a menu from World War One.

“This sort of personalisation of our catering offering is organised and agreed on a school-by-school basis.

“I think the important message, and the one that helps increase school meal uptake, is that we along with the schools are flexible in our approach in growing meal uptake.”

Pupils in the Dining Hall at the former Hewett School, Norwich in 1980

. Picture: Archant LibraryPupils in the Dining Hall at the former Hewett School, Norwich in 1980 . Picture: Archant Library

To mark National School Meals Week, Norse has partnered with a number of Norfolk restaurants to offer some of its school chefs the opportunity to experience a service in a professional kitchen.

Five chef managers will be working alongside head chefs for food preparation and lunch service at Warwick St Social in Norwich on November 13, Benedicts in Norwich on November 14, Socius in Burnham Market on November 15, and Brasteds in Framingham Pigot on November 16.

Remembering Norfolk’s school dinners

School dinners are a subject which stir up many memories, so we asked our readers what their favourite school dinner dishes were.

St Thomas More school, girls baking in the kitchen.   pic taken 25th june 1963   c12715   pic to be used in edp dml aug 2011St Thomas More school, girls baking in the kitchen. pic taken 25th june 1963 c12715 pic to be used in edp dml aug 2011

Among those who voted, toffee cream tart was the firm favourite with 36pc of the vote. Roast dinners came second with 25pc, followed by rice pudding and semolina with 11pc.

One reader remembered school dinners “in big aluminium trays” from their King’s Lynn school’s kitchen, and states a favourite dish of “chocolate and pink and vanilla sponge pudding”.

School dinner desserts also came out on top among our readers in a Facebook poll, with dishes such as toffee cream tart, chocolate puddings and garish pink custard given the thumbs-up.

There were fewer happy memories of main courses, with people remembering “beef stew full of gristle and watery, lumpy mash”, salad “with a caterpillar” and “nasty-tasting” mashed potato served with an ice-cream scoop.

Lunch time treats: Lothingland Middle School pupils queue up for their healthier lunches in July 1987Lunch time treats: Lothingland Middle School pupils queue up for their healthier lunches in July 1987

How do you create a school dinner menu?

Designing a school menu is a meticulous process.

At Norse, which provides school meals to 25,000 primary school children in Norfolk and Suffolk, it begins with the menu team considering seasonal dishes and meeting with suppliers to check out new products or concepts.

A draft menu is planned which is then trialled in a selection of kitchens where children, teachers and parents are invited to taste new items.

More school dinners being served up in Norfolk.

 Picture: ArchantMore school dinners being served up in Norfolk. Picture: Archant

Once the final menu is decided, the costs are worked out and it is assessed by a dietician to ensure it meets set nutritional standards.

Dishes on the autumn/winter menus include vegetarian pasta bolognese, roast dinners, sweet potato and lentil curry and cottage pie.

Andrew Lipscomb, catering operations director at Norse, said the organisation introduced a “free from” menu in October 2018, suitable for common dietary requirements like dairy and gluten free diets, in response to growing demand.

A brief history of school meals

Hellesdon High School canteen in 1992.Hellesdon High School canteen in 1992.

The concept of a school dinner began in the mid to late 19th century as a way to provide a filling meal to disadvantaged children.

The idea caught on, and by 1920 more than one million children were taking school meals across Britain.

In 1941 a national school meals policy was introduced along with the first nutritional standards for school dinners.

Three years later the Education Act made it the duty of all local education authorities (LEAs) to provide school meals for those who wanted them, and from 1947, the full cost was met by government.

The updated Education Act 1980 relegated school meals to a non-essential service, removing the obligation on LEAs to provide them, except for those entitled to free school meals.

In the early 2000s various programmes were launched by government to improve the nutritional value of school meals, the provision of which LEAs now put out to tender.

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