There is no doubt that when pupils walk through the school gates in September, school life is going to feel different. With talk of bubbles, staggered start times and even lunch in classrooms, the new way of school life is bound to feel unsettling for some.

Over the last few months there have been many industry webinars on what school lunchtimes will look like, with plenty of advice being shared to help school chefs and caterers manage the new way of working. As an organisation that helps schools with design and build projects across the UK, the team at ABDA has been listening to all the advice and ideas being shared with interest. However, they wanted to hear the views of the children and fully understand how they felt about returning to school and the changes they may experience at lunchtime.

ABDA employed Digital Blonde, who have many years of education marketing experience, to run a series of focus groups on Zoom with Primary School children from different areas of the UK. This explored everything from their food choices to the dining environment to the overall experience. One of the key findings was that all children wanted a hot meal at lunchtime which was good news for school meal providers.

Here is some food for thought from the focus groups: –

  • Some of the children understood that school life would be different in September whilst others hadn’t considered all the changes that may need to be made to manage Covid-19. For example, one child mentioned that she would be eating her lunch in the classroom as there wasn’t enough space to spread out in the dining hall. Another child said they would be sat at small tables in the dining hall with children spread out rather than sitting right next to each other. When asked how they felt about these possibilities some thought this would be strange or weird and another commented about not wanting to be in the same room all day. One nine-year-old girl, was particularly concerned about having to rush her lunch if she was in the classroom or they were having staggered lunches in the hall.
  • When asked  what they liked about the way the dining hall currently looks colour featured highly. One boy said how he liked the colour of the tables whilst another commented on children’s artwork bringing the dining area to life. Several of the children liked the big tables where they could sit with their friends.
  • Children were asked about the restaurants they like to eat out at with families outside of school. Pizza Express clearly came out on top with the first group; being able to see the chefs cooking was one of the key reasons for this and speed of service was another. One girl found this venue “chilled and calming” whilst another commented that she liked decorating the chef’s hat whilst she waited. Pizza Hut was also mentioned for the salad bar as the children could help themselves and eat as much as they wanted. Nando’s was also considered good by the children as they liked the way you could create the dish exactly how you wanted it by selecting sauces and spices. The comfortable seating and lighting giving a warm welcome was the reason for another child choosing Bill’s.
  • When asked what features from their favourite restaurants they would like to see in a school dining hall responses included a warm welcome and being taken to your table for waiter service; an open kitchen so they can see the school chefs, more choice for the dish to be created how you want it, comfy seats instead of benches and outside dining areas.
  • The researchers asked the children to consider that if they had the freedom to do whatever they wanted to the design of the dining hall what would they put in. Adding a mezzanine level to increase the amount of seating in the dining hall proved popular as it would mean children wouldn’t need to eat in classrooms. Putting rainbows on the walls to celebrate the work of the NHS was mentioned by one girl, recognising the impact that Covid-19 has had on the way they see life. Several of the other children mentioned white or grey walls to give a fresh and clean look but also so that artwork could be added. A different dining experience was mentioned by a couple of children which included movies or bands playing throughout the lunchtime. Technology also featured in a few responses with the mention of Deliveroo style ordering and robots bringing your food to your table.

ABDA will be continuing to talk to pupils as part of its work on designing, refurbishing and building new school catering areas. Claire Smith, director said: “The world has seen a complete transformation in human behaviour over the last few months and all areas of the hospitality industry have been affected. Understanding what consumers think, feel and believe is so important for all of us moving forward. Whilst we must take into account the design practicalities around a school lunchtime experience, listening to the voices of the pupils using the venue is so important to us. They all had nuggets of information that we absolutely will consider when exploring future designs and we’ll continue this journey of running regular focus groups with children. It’s so important pupils feel involved in the decision-making processes as ultimately they will be the ones using the facilities we create for schools. Over the last few weeks and months, we’ve been helping our clients to prepare for reopening and will be sharing all feedback from these focus groups with them, both now and in the future.”

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