It’s the start of the new academic year and the perfect opportunity to showcase your culinary wares to a new batch of pupils. School caterers face a big challenge in offering healthy but appealing meals on a budget, but it’s definitely not mission impossible. Here, several school cooks and industry experts offer a master class in great school lunches, which will wow youngsters whilst still adhering to school food guidelines.

Sam Ward,  former school cook and school food consultant for Growing Minds Always value your customer and see the service through the eyes of a child. We all eat with our eyes and children are no different – colourful, attractive displays and salad bars will help encourage healthy habits. Always strive to improve by asking for feedback from your customers. Keep up with the trends. Make food fun, colourful and tasty encouraging pupils to try new foods and expand their palates. Taster sessions, curriculum links and theme days are a great way to do this. Add value to your service – School cooks are a valuable resource with skills and knowledge. Integrate the catering service into school life through supporting curriculum learning, food education and growing.

Jeanette Orrey MBE is a former school dinner lady and one of the UK’s most well-respected experts on school food. Her vision to provide pupils with fresh, local and seasonal food inspired her to co-found Food for Life, transforming food culture in schools School food is more than just serving food at lunchtime. Here are my top tips for providing great school dinners and a positive lunchtime environment.

  • Taste the food you are cooking. Would you want to eat it?
  • You ‘eat with your eyes’ so make sure your counter is clean and the dining hall is welcoming
  • Hold after school taster sessions with pupils and parents
  • Create appetising displays on the counter with fruit and veg from the school garden
  • Hold food themed assemblies to engage pupils in the work you are doing in the kitchen
  • Lastly, cook the food with love, care and pride – that alone will make it taste good. Remember, you are doing a very important and worthwhile job – the children need you.

Marie Medhurst, sales director at Bannisters Yorkshire Family Farm Baked potatoes and baked sweet potatoes make perfect grab-and-go meals for secondary schools. Full of vitamins and fibre, they can be topped with simple favourites like cheese or beans, or with on-trend fillings such as pulled pork, vegetable katsu curry, spicy Mexican chicken or even a pizza-style mixture of tomato sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni and vegetables.

Karen Heavey, brand manager for Kerrymaid Offering street-inspired dishes in convenient on-the-go formats is increasingly important in secondary schools to drive both excitement and retention as pupils often have the option to dine off-site. To deliver both nutrition and taste to students, try offering superfood alternatives such as a spinach and falafel wholemeal wrap. Customisation has become another rising trend and can be applicable to a variety of dishes including toppings and fillings such as quinoa, couscous and avocado added to rice and salad boxes.

Darren Chapman, development chef, Nestlé Professional Within my role of assisting schools, I have found that curries are a great way to introduce new flavours to children. Using diced chicken, a selection of vegetables and a mild flavouring, you can create an affordable meal that school children can really enjoy. The introduction of oily fish is a tough one but can be delicious for the more adventurous. A salmon and broccoli Thai curry will leave them wanting more and for primary schools why not try a salmon ‘fish dog’ making food fun but also tasty. Visit Maggi for ideas. Remember that even classic dishes such as a chilli can be changed to be more affordable and nutritious by swapping some meat for beans or even adding diced fruit. It sweetens the flavour and reduces the heat without compromising on the flavours.

Annette Coggins, head of foodservice, Tilda UK Children will love the on-trend flavours of Mexican food and what’s more, burritos are an incredibly versatile dish which can be tailored to fit a wide range of dietary requirements, allowing school caterers to easily offer pupils a taste of Mexico. Simply switch meat for a veggie option to make them suitable for vegetarians and use a mild salsa instead of the usual spice to make them more child-friendly.

Kim Sheldon, kitchen and catering manager, James Bateman Junior High School, Staffordshire With school meals it is important to make sure the options are nutritional but also appealing to the pupils. Pasta goes down really well in our schools so we like to vary the pasta dishes throughout our menus and terms. Not only is it easy to adapt recipes to ensure there is variety available, it is also easy to pack pasta dishes full of hidden vegetables. Pupils who say they do not like vegetables just love our home-made Spaghetti Bolognaise which is packed with lots of hidden nutritious vegetables!

Michael Goulston,  LACA School Chef of the Year 2018 As the current national school chef of the year, the tips and tricks I have picked up along the way are fairly simple. However, the most important one is that the ingredients must be of a good quality. Chefs shouldn’t be scared to use bold and different flavours in their menus. I would suggest that a taster table be provided so that the children are able to try new foods. In my experience if we get the children involved with menu development and planning, they are more willing to try different foods, it also makes cooking and eating a fun experience. I will also plan my menu depending on what is popular on the high street.

Alison Smith, product developer for Mars Food Europe Taking inspiration from the Mexican craze, a must-have on the menu is tacos. Not only are they the perfect light bite for pupils, they can be moulded and transformed with a variety of flavours to suit the needs and requirements of different diets, lifestyle choices and favourites. Fill with grilled pork marinated in Uncle Ben’s Texan Barbecue ready-rouse sauce, summer corn, crunchy salad leaves and finally top with a helping of the chunky salsa and school caterers have provided a nutritious and popular lunchtime meal. Of course, for vegetarians and vegans, tacos can be filled with grilled tofu and red peppers.