As the new academic year begins, we’re offering tasty solutions to help school cooks satisfy hungry young diners.
Education catering is a challenging but rewarding field, and it’s important to keep up to speed with evolving food trends, whilst also adhering to nutritional standards.
We asked several skilled chefs to do their homework and send in some A* ideas for both primary and secondary school menus. Here’s what they had to ‘report’…

Steven Cross LACA School Chef of the Year, who works at Park Community School, Havant, Hampshire 

We’ve been working with Alyn Williams, the Michelin-starred chef from the Westbury Hotel, to try and encourage children in schools to eat fish that’s not breaded or battered. One dish which went down particularly well was Cajun blackened salmon. Salmon can be expensive but it’s cheaper if you buy it frozen. Simply rub the salmon with a Cajun spice mix and grill in the oven at a high temperature, Serve with sweet potato wedges oven-baked with rosemary and a ranch dressing. We also made pollack tacos by grilling plain pollack on a tray with a little water to keep it moist. Serve in soft taco shells with a radish and iceberg lettuce salad and a herb, yogurt and honey dressing. You could also add some capers. Finally, try making some fish ‘sausage’ and beans, using a blend of salmon and pollack. Poach the sausages then grill to add some colour and serve with mixed BBQ beans.

Oscar John catering operations manager, New Wave Federation, Hackney

We make spinach and chickpea pancakes, a north African dish, which goes down really well, particularly with our older children. It’s all fresh and really simple to make. We make savoury pancakes and stuff them with a mixture of spinach, courgettes, carrots and chickpeas as the binder. Next add some cumin, turmeric and fennel seeds, which give it a nice warming feel, and serve the stuffed pancakes with a light coconut sauce, made with cumin, turmeric and coconut milk. The colours are really appealing.

Katherine Bridge school chef working for HCL at Breachwood Green JMI School, in Hertfordshire and Eastern Region School Chef of the Year 2019

I made a Korean flapjack pork in a bao bun with a rainbow kimchi salad and sweet potato noodles for the LACA National School Chef of the Year final. It was inspired by the street food I’ve tasted in my home town of Hitchin. The bao bun is made using McDougalls Soft Bap Mix and puréed spinach. The pattie is formed from pork mince, fresh garlic, red chilli, coriander and a homemade hoisin sauce, then oven baked. For the noodles, I spirulise sweet potatoes and cook them in a hot pan until they start to caramelise, then add orange juice to steam them before combining with fried egg. Crumbled flapjack is sprinkled over the top to give it a sweet and salty crunch.

Sarah Moor brand manager for Lion sauces, from AAK Foodservice

Lion’s versatile new Indian sauces and dressings bring authentic global flavour to dishes without overpowering young tastebuds with spice and heat. Our new Aromatic Baste and Marinade is a perfect mild curry sauce base – just add tomatoes and cream or coconut milk – and it’s equally good as a dip or brushed onto meat or vegetables for a subtle but distinctive taste. The sauce is gluten free and vegan, perfect for a chickpea dhal or a vegetable tikka masala. Serving potato wedges? Offer a dollop of Tandoori Ketchup, combining rich tomato flavour with classic Indian spices!

Jeannette Orrey MBE, former dinner lady, co-founder of the Soil Association Food for Life programme and leading expert on school meals, shares her thoughts on improving the school lunch experience:

  1. Talk to the children. If they have a school council ask if you as the cook can attend. They will come up with some fantastic ideas, some you may be able to use. Also let them know what your job within the kitchen entails.
  2. Can you incorporate any of those ideas onto the menu?
  3. Do you have time to talk to the children when they are eating their lunch? I know this is not always possible but it is worth it.
  4. Take a child’s look at the school hall/dining room. Can you change the layout? Noise puts children off. Where is the waste bin? If children can see it, is there somewhere you can put it so it’s out of view.
  5. Can the children see what’s on offer in regard to the food? Always remember – you eat with your eyes.
  6. Can you invite some of the older children into your kitchen to see what you do?
  7. Remember you do the job because you enjoy it – smile!

Helen Mansey school cook at St Bartholomew’s COE Primary School in Haslemere, Surrey

Delicious, wholesome, balanced meals can be created without meat and dairy products, favourites currently on offer at our school include veggie tacos, roasted vegetable couscous and butternut squash curry. Plant-based eating doesn’t just stop at mains, we also put vegetables into our desserts including carrots in our flapjacks and beetroot in our brownies. Burgers are a firm favourite with children and wholefood plant-based burgers are an exciting trend in food right now. From black bean burrito burgers to chipotle maple sweet potato burgers, the flavour possibilities are endless and they
are also highly nutritious.

Robin Dudley business development chef for Essential Cuisine

It’s incredibly important that any vegetarian option on a school menu isn’t just a dull and uninspired afterthought. Our advice when we’re working with school chefs is to try and make vegetarian dishes the most vibrant and colourful that they can and try and include ingredients like pulses and grains that make for a more interesting texture. It’s all about capturing kids’ interests and fuelling not just themselves but their imaginations. 40% of Essential Cuisine’s product range is suitable for vegetarians, giving school chefs the tools and inspiration to brighten up vegetarian menus. Why not try this delicious quick and easy recipe for Macaroni Cheese, a vegetarian recipe suitable for all hungry appetites.

Marie Medhurst sales director at Bannisters Yorkshire Family Farm

Baked potatoes enable children to try new flavours with the comforting familiarity of food they already enjoy. Offer a choice of toppings such as mild curry or gently spiced Middle Eastern stew, alongside ever-popular beans or grated cheese to reassure those who prefer to stick to what they know they’ll like. This is also a good way to provide gluten free or plant-based options, such as Mexican-style bean chilli or Indian-inspired chickpea dhal. Allowing pupils to choose just a small helping of something new, separately from the rest of the food on their plate, can build confidence.

Olivier Blanc Ambassador for Love British Food

It is really important that school children are served a variety of food and flavours, not just the same dishes day in, day out. School caterers should be introducing new tastes and vegetables, try a chicken and butternut squash curry to introduce new vegetables; fishcakes are always a popular choice and a tasty change from fish and chips. Kids also love pies and these can be changed regularly with chicken and veg pie both being good options. For me it is all about where the ingredients come from. It is essential that children know their meat has come from the farmer in the village and how this supports the economy.