Ways to make sure infant free school meals serves up value for money. Part 3 of 4. Words by Paul Aagaard.


Good caterers help create lunchtime systems designed for children, not adults.

I have talked in my first two blogs about getting the dining room right and engaging with parents.

This blog is all about working with caterers. The vast majority do an excellent job and are extremely good at providing healthy and tasty school meals which are child friendly and comply with the school food standards. However, it’s the working relationship that they have with the school and how they communicate with the children which determines whether or not the UIFSM policy will become successful.

Working with caterers

The problem The solution
Here are the problems I have had to deal with on numerous occasions over the last ten years with caterers.

  1. Systems designed for adults not children
    School cooks aren’t paid much and have little time left after service to wash up and clear away dining room equipment. So if they can serve all the children as part of a continuous service they get to finish the job earlier. That’s why so many school dining rooms end up becoming feeding stations. This is a system designed for adults, not children and it’s why there is a reluctance to introduce my proposed restaurant style lunchtimes I talked about in my first blog based on a series of set sittings.
  2. Not enough cutlery
    Schools seem too often to run out of cutlery. Despite repeated requests for more schools often don’t get any. Furthermore, as caterers have benefited financially out of UIFSM this shouldn’t be a problem. Not having enough cutlery may seem insignificant. However, it does compromise on the effectiveness of UIFSM. I was watching service recently in a school which I knew needed a lot more cutlery. There were four members of staff in the kitchen. Two were serving and the other two were busy washing up what little cutlery they had left. If all four had been serving the children everyone would have got served much quicker. But, because there was only two serving it took twice as long. So even if schools bother to create lovely restaurant style lunchtimes and engage with parents to increase uptake, the lack of cutlery compromises all the good work done.
  3. Performance management
    School leaders can’t line manager their kitchen staff unless they are employed in-house. This can often lead to major relationship problems which can really put children off eating a school dinner. In one school I worked with recently some of the Midday Supervisors said the school cook sent a young boy to the back of the queue for accidentally spilling his dinner on the floor whilst looking to see if he had got a spot under his plate to win a prize. This creates a very negative association with school meals and will encourage that child to ask for a home packed lunch instead. The school had to then spend time meeting with the caterers and discussing performance management. This takes time and often doesn’t result in either the inappropriate behaviour improving or the member of staff being replaced.
Here are my proposed solutions to the three problems I have talked about based on my experience of working with caterers.

  1. Kitchen staff working patterns
    Changing from a continuous service to a series of sittings doesn’t necessarily mean kitchen staff hours need to be increased. It’s often just a change in working patterns. If a school moves from a one sitting service to three there will be gaps in between each sitting which can be used to collect dirty crockery and then washed up. By the end of service they will have a done a lot more washing up than they would have done when they were running a continuous service. The workload is likely to be the same – it’s just done in a different way. One school I worked with recently wanted to move from a two sitting service to three but with no changes to the service time. The school were told if they wanted to do this it will cost them almost £1,000. Apart from maybe a few more food containers to deal with the extra sitting there is no other costs involved. It should be perfectly feasible and possible therefore for school leaders to negotiate an increase in the number of sittings without incurring much additional cost.
  2. Getting more cutlery
    If school are working with a large catering company the provision of extra light equipment such as cutlery, plates, bowls and beakers should be no problem. Whenever I have been asked by a school to deal with this issue the caterers seem quite happy to provide the extra equipment.
  3. Whole school consultation
    Employing a third party expert who is knowledgeable about catering and understands how to create a good school food culture may be necessary to solve staff performance problems. I have been employed to do this on several occasions. My approach is to conduct consultations with the children, the teachers and the Midday Supervisors so they can have their say about lunchtimes. This gives the school valuable feedback about exactly why the school cook or one of her assistants is upsetting people and what impact this is having on the children and on other members of staff. This evidence based information when presented to the caterers is usually enough to trigger a much more effective solution. At one school I worked with I was asked to chair a meeting with the headteacher, business manager, the school cook who was causing problems and her line manager. This resulted in the school cook changing her whole attitude and approach. Having a quick chat with her line manager just doesn’t seem to work. But a professional performance management meeting with evidence based information about the problem is much more effective.