Ways to make sure infant free school meals serves up value for money. Part 2 of 4. Words by Paul Aagaard.


A recent survey suggests that 95% of parents of the children taking up infant free school meals are recognising the benefits.

In the first blog in this series, I talked about getting the dining room right. But lots of schools have already adopted some of the best practice principles I proposed and uptake still remains very low. Consequently many pupils aren’t benefiting from the policy.

This second blog looks at parent engagement and what schools can do to improve uptake.

Parent attitudes to school food

The problem The solution
Clearly the UIFSM policy won’t work at all if children opt for a packed lunch.

UIFSM uptake
The government target for UIFSM is 87% (PDF, 289 KB). That’s a reasonable target bearing in mind the meals are free. In reality, many schools I have visited are reporting an uptake which is way below this target – in some cases less than 60%. That means thousands of children who could benefit are not. As a result they are eating a home packed lunch which often includes food that is high in fat and sugar. Even if they include some fruit and vegetables we know from previous research that only 1% of packed lunches meet the school food standards (PDF, 1.7 MB).

Parental choice
Parents reserve the right to decide what their children eat. And this is a very emotive topic. If schools dare to ban chocolate in packed lunches then to quote one headteacher in Kent I spoke to recently: “parents go absolutely ballistic”.

Why some parents opt for packed lunches
So what’s the problem here? As a parent, why wouldn’t you want to save over £400 a year and give your children a healthy school lunch? There are a number of problems:

  1. What children want to eat and what they need are quite different. Lots of parents claim that their children don’t or won’t eat green vegetables, oily fish and salad. Parents prefer to provide them with a packed lunch that includes foods they know their children like.
  2. If parents opt for school meals they have no idea whether or not their child has actually eaten it. Because packed lunches come home again what has been eaten can be monitored.
  3. Parents claim the portion sizes are far too small and their children are really starving when they come home.
Make UIFSM compulsory
This sounds really radical but the solution to making sure UIFSM becomes a value for money policy is to make it compulsory at least for a term.Schools I have spoken to that have introduced this policy in Herts, West Sussex and Kent all say it has been successful. Average uptake is about 95%.

So why didn’t parents complain in the same way they often do when banning chocolate from packed lunches?

Parent attitudes to a compulsory UIFSM policy
Parents I have spoken to where UIFSM is compulsory or they are considering making it compulsory said they were relieved. “Now we don’t have to battle with our children anymore about packed lunches versus school meals. It makes it much simpler and easier”. When I asked parents about children not liking some of the meals and not eating them they said. “We are sure some children won’t like it at first. They may feel a little hungry if they don’t eat their dinner. However if they aren’t given a choice they will soon get used to eating it”.

A recent survey commissioned by the School Food Plan and carried out by Optimum Research, suggests that 95% of parents of the children taking up infant free school meals are recognising the benefits. Almost one quarter (23%) say the main benefit to their child is the greater variety of food they will now eat. The same proportion says they most value their child eating a proper meal at lunchtime whilst almost one fifth (19%) say their child has enjoyed trying new foods. The opportunity to eat together and socialise was identified as the most important aspect by 15% of parents which is why it’s so important, as I explained in my first blog, to create a restaurant style lunchtime.

Encouraging children to eat their dinner
To tackle the issue of whether or not children actually do eat their dinner, it’s important to make sure Midday Supervisors give regular feedback to parents. Some schools have gone to the trouble of completing food diaries for those who are particularly fussy.

Many other so-called fussy eaters are only fussy because their mates say the food is yucky so it puts them off. Inviting a few children to become food heroes is a good solution to this problem The food heroes are invited to try all the meals on the menu and then give feedback to everyone else. If the food heroes say: “it’s yummy” then this positive peer pressure is all it takes sometimes for children to give new foods a try.