The importance of better eating environments

The links between a healthier lunch and better concentration from pupils in the afternoons are well documented, but an independent study looking at the relationship between school meal take up and dining environments suggests that the huge efforts to improve the quality of school food over the last six years could go to waste unless schools ensure their canteens are also fit for purpose.

The study, carried out on behalf of the School Food Trust, highlighted several environmental factors that contribute to low school meal uptake, including cramped canteen layouts, poorly-managed queuing systems, inefficient payment methods and high noise levels.

Alongside the study, further experiments in school canteens tracked the eating behaviours of children in primary and secondary schools and found that even small improvements to dining spaces can make young people eat more school food. After making minor changes to the environment, such as staggering lunch queues to give children more time to eat, introducing tablecloths and replacing plastic plates, knives and forks with crockery and cutlery, the average child threw away 38 per cent less food.

Jane Nicholls, deputy head teacher of Langley Park Girls School, where one of the experiments took place, said: “The small changes we made to the dining room made a huge difference to our pupils and turned lunch into a special occasion where the girls took the time to sit down and really appreciate their food. It has made it obvious to us that encouraging healthy eating is as much about providing an attractive environment as improving the food”.

Simple changes

To tackle the issues highlighted by the study, the School Food Trust launched Canteen Rescue in 2010, a campaign to encourage schools to make simple changes to their dining environments and drive the take-up of school meals as a result.

The first phase of Canteen Rescue was a national competition to give five schools a complete dining room makeover. The emphasis was on pupils being at the heart of the design and planning process for their new canteens and the competition received entries from over 1,000 schools.

One of the winning schools was Albany Science College in Chorley, Lancashire. The school’s eye-catching design for a 1950s style diner caught the attention of a panel of celebrity judges and public voters. Their makeover is now complete and pupils are enjoying an authentic 1950s experience every time they eat, with booth seating, a vibrant colour scheme and working vintage jukebox.    

Extended schools manager, Wendy Johnstone said: “The whole school really got behind the Canteen Rescue project and we’re thrilled with the results of the makeover. We’ve been seeing more students coming in to try it out, which is exactly what we set out to achieve.”

Following the success of the national competition, Canteen Rescue then helped a further eight schools by offering grants of up to £10,000 to make changes to their dining rooms.

Committed to improvements

The successful grant applicants had to show that they were committed to improving lunch time, and many had already started to make changes that were having a positive impact on the dining room experience.

Before submitting their successful bid to Canteen Rescue for new tables and chairs, Alison Walsh, head teacher at Greenfield Primary School in Walsall, along with the schools School Nutrition Action Group (SNAG), made up of pupils from Year 5 and 6, came up with innovative solutions to improve lunch time.

“In terms of cost, one of the cheapest changes we made was to buy the tablecloth for our ‘golden table’, which was £3 a metre, and we bought special crockery and cutlery for it. The golden table is only set on a Friday and pupils are awarded a place at it for good behaviour during the week. The pupils love sitting at the golden table, it makes them feel special,” Alison said.

She believes that finding out what pupils think about lunchtime is a powerful tool for increasing school meal take-up: “Getting pupils involved doesn’t cost anything. I meet with the SNAG for 45 minutes each half term and they feel as if they’re doing their bit – and they are! Their contribution is really important.

“Since the changes we’ve seen more pupils trying school meals for the first time and some pupils who used to have a packed lunch every day are having a school meal once or twice a week.”

Sharing your ideas
If you’re thinking of making a few improvements to your canteen and want to raise some funds to help get things started, tell people exactly what you want to do – you might be surprised how willing they are to offer support.

Get talking to people in your community and let them know about your school’s plans. You might find there’s an opportunity for your school to get a sponsorship, or a local organisation might be interested in working with you to put on a fundraising event.

If your school has a Let’s Get Cooking club, cooking can be a great way to fundraise. If you don’t already have a cooking club, find your nearest Let’s Get Cooking club at – they might be able to offer advice and tips on community events

Local businesses may be willing to lend support or give you better deals on goods, equipment or furniture for your school canteen area. Consider approaching larger corporate organisations that have branches in your local area, to see if they can support or sponsor your project.

Hold fundraising events that are fun, interesting and involve everyone – pupils, caterers, teachers, parents and members of the community. Fundraising is all about appealing strongly to people – a great way to do this is by using photos. Take photos of your current canteen and project team and use them to help get people on your side.

You can also approach a local artist to create a giant mural that everyone can add to.

Making room for dinner
The School Food Trust can provide expert support and advice to improve school kitchen and dining spaces, with our Making Room for Dinner service, offering a range of support tools, including:

• case studies for inspiration
• one-to-one guidance
• guides and checklists   
• funding advice
• links to key partners
• action plans – with recommendations

We can also provide a detailed report and action plan, which will review areas such as the layout and flow of the kitchen and dining hall; working practices and processes to ensure maximum efficiency; the servery area to help entice customers and encourage healthy food choices; the interior design of the dining hall; and the range of equipment used.

Through our expert knowledge and experience, we can offer both quick win, low-cost solutions, as well as recommendations for areas where more further planning and cost may be involved. We can work with any school, local authority or caterer, whatever the size of your budget or ambitions.

To find out more and for pricing information, call or e-mail us to arrange a free initial consultation to discuss your needs.

For more information
Tel: 0114 2742318