With only a few weeks to go until the end of the academic year, now is a good time to start planning ahead and get your kitchen in order for the next school year. With so many rules and nutritional guidelines to adhere to, make the most of time-saving products and ideas to ensure your school food offering is top class…

Are you ready?

Schools-compliant ready-to-use sauces are a great time-saving option and can be used to create a variety of dishes.

Roy Shortland, development chef for Dolmio and Uncle Ben’s ready-to-use sauces, explains: “There are certain types of food and menu items that are always firm favourites with British children. Italian food for example, is hugely popular with kids. Classic dishes such as Spaghetti Bolognese, pasta and meatballs, or even Carbonara make great permanent additions to school menus.”

Dolmio’s Italian sauces make an excellent starting point for a variety of Italian dishes such as spag bol or even as a way to cut down preparation time for the classic pizza. Mild curries such as Chicken Korma are also a popular choice and always go down well on themed menu days to add variety to the school menu during the week. Pulled chicken and pork dishes are becoming increasingly popular too, so why not create delicious handheld wraps Hickory Smoked BBQ and Texan BBQ Ready-To- Use Sauces?

Mex it up!

The Mexican food trend is on the rise in schools, as students become more adventurous.

“By incorporating the versatile and popular burrito into menus, operators can offer new and exciting flavours to diners looking for a grab and go option,” advises Mark Lyddy, head of foodservice, Tilda UK. “Burritos are easy to make, cheap to produce, increasingly in demand and incredibly adaptable, working across snacks, lunch and dinner menus – a true all-day option for operators to profit from! What’s more, burritos are an incredibly versatile dish and simply by switching hot salsa for mild, or meat for a veggie option, operators can appeal to the wide customer base of the grab and go market.”

Tilda recommends adding its Brown ‘n’ White rice to burritos – a 50:50 mix of white/brown rice, which is recommended by the School Food Standards. School caterers can create a range of different fillings with ingredients such as black beans, pulled pork, chicken, beef, turkey, grilled vegetables, sour cream or salsa, resulting in healthy snacks that can be eaten at the table or on-the-go for older students. Caterers can even tailor burritos to different age groups by simply swapping ingredients; for example, hot salsa for mild, making them an ideal menu choice for pupils of all ages.

Sweet treats

Whilst the emphasis is on healthy eating, children will always say yes to a sweet treat, so it’s worthwhile giving some thought to your sweet offerings, says Lisa Boswell, of CSM Bakery Solutions. “The reality of school meals are that pupils will nearly always opt for a treat after the main meal and, as such, offering reduced fat options is an easy to way to meet the demands of the pupils and give them a healthier alternative at the same time.”

When deciding on what products and ranges it may also be worth looking at options such as adding pieces of fruit to mixes to help pupils eat them almost without them knowing. Planning is key and this should include giving pupils choice and variety as they get bored with the same menu day after day. CSM Bakery Solutions has a range of reduced fat products that serve this purpose, including Readi-bake Reduced Fat Cookie dough which is available in two variants, cocoa and vanilla.

Give us today our daily bread

Schools are required, as part of the School Food Plan, to make bread available every day – and it’s well worth considering baking your own on site. Not only is it cost-effective, it also tastes great too.

Macphie has launched a Complete Bread Mix, which can be used to make a variety of fermented bread applications such as rolls, pizza bases, ciabatta, baguettes, focaccia, Chelsea buns and flat breads – with just the addition of water.

Alan Leith, head of applications at Macphie, says: “It has amazing versatility and can produce various types of breads by simply adjusting the water level, shaping and proving times and it will also take inclusions and flavours.”

Catering for special diets

According to Allergy UK, 6-8% of children have a proven food allergy so it is vital to cater for their needs. Many food manufacturers now offer FreeFrom products, which can be used across the board, rather than solely for children with special dietary requirements.

McCain’s Gluten Free Signatures Traditional Chips are a prime example. “Chips are a real favourite in schools but because they’re not served every day, when they do appear on the menu it’s important that they meet the high expectations of pupils,” says Katrina Ellis, McCain Foods product manager. “The launch of new Gluten Free Signatures Traditional Chips enables school caterers to serve great tasting chips and meet the needs of those who require special diets, with the equipment they have available, and without extra paperwork.”

Secondary solutions

To compete with the high street, school cooks need to cater to the latest food trends, particularly as teenagers tend to be early adopters.

Emma Haworth, senior brand manager – foodservice, Dr Oetker, says: “Children can often be the toughest critics which, paired with school nutritional guidelines, can be a huge challenge for caterers. It’s essential to offer meals that not only meet these guidelines but also appeal to hungry pupils and deliver on taste – the winning formula to make lunchtimes epic.”

Chicago Town offers a range of pizzas specifically for schools, which means caterers can meet these challenges head on – and most students can’t tell the difference from the Chicago Town Pizza they eat at home.

How to increase school meal uptake

Jeanette Orrey MBE and Caoimhe McQuaid, nutritionist at Kerrymaid, share their latest nutrition tips on how to increase meal take-up:

  • Remember children eat with their eyes! Make sure meals are served in a visually appealing way and that the sides of the plates are wiped clean before being served
  • Know your customers! Engaging with the children at your school is vital, understanding their likes and dislikes is key, not only maintaining, but increasing, the uptake of school meals
  • Invite parents to taste your menus. School meals have improved immeasurably over the last two decades, but parents may still need convincing of this. They probably still have distant memories of lumpy custard and semolina!
  • Where possible source produce locally. Demonstrating a commitment to supporting local businesses is something that many communities are keen to adopt and this ethos is growing. Get parents on board by advertising your produce providers

Top Tip Try serving broccoli and sweetcorn as hot side dishes, with red and orange peppers, beetroot, spring onions, tomatoes, olives and lettuce on the salad bar – Louise Wagstaffe, culinary advisor, Premier Foods

Seal of approval

The Children’s Food Trust is relaunching its awards programme for schools, which give school caterers the chance to showcase their commitment to children’s nutrition. For more details visit www.childrensfoodtrust.org.uk

Unilever Food Solutions and the Children’s Food Trust have produced a guide for school caterers that will help them meet the school food standards while offering simple tips to start them on their journey to achieving one of the Children’s Food Trust new awards. www.unileverfoodsolutions .co.uk/menu-support/ourpromotions/ food-for-thought.html

 Click here to read the rest of the June 2016 issue of Stir it up