Posted in education, Free School Meals, policy, schools

10 tips to make universal infant free school meals a recipe for success

Today’s post is written by Paul Aagard, director of Recipe for Change, and a contributor to TheSchoolBus.

Nick Clegg, in a BBC Radio 4 Today programme interview on 2nd September 2014, said: “a healthy hot meal at lunchtime is as, if not more, effective than many of the literacy and numeracy initiatives which have been undertaken in the past in the classroom. It has a dramatic effect”. His claims are based on a universal infant free school meal (UIFSM) pilot in Durham and Newham, which showed that infant children made between four to eight weeks more progress than similar pupils in comparison areas. The impact report on this pilot concludes that free school meals had a “significant positive impact on attainment

Critics disagree and say that a 1.9 percentage point increase in the proportion of pupils reaching the expected level in reading at key stage 1 and 2.2 percentage points for maths is “barely statistically significant”.

Whether you agree or disagree, UIFSM is unlikely to make any difference at all unless schools recognise how they run and manage their lunchtimes can have a positive or a negative impact on behaviour and safety. If you get it wrong, children will end up talking about unresolved lunchtime incidents in afternoon lessons. This creates a barrier to learning irrespective of whether they have eaten, or partly eaten, a school meal. If you get it right, this will improve readiness for learning, it will reduce incidents of bullying and it will improve concentration. That means no lost learning minutes and that means children will be on task and focused.

Here are 10 tops tips to help ensure UIFSM has a statistically significant impact on children’s attainment and development.

1. Midday Supervisor training. Midday Supervisors (MDSAs) in so many schools really struggle to engage with children effectively. This is because MDSAs are often thrown in at the deep end with no training when they first start. As a result, children aren’t encouraged to eat properly and end up dumping their food in the bin because they are uncomfortable with how MDSAs deal with them. “Please don’t eat your roast potatoes like that, how dare you argue with me” and “Why are you dropping food on the floor? It’s dirty”– are common responses. I am sure MDSAs don’t mean to be unkind or unhelpful – they just lack the skills to challenge respectfully. Responses like “Let me teach you how to cut up your roast potato so you can eat it properly, I need you to listen to me-thank you” and “Put you rubbish in the bin thank you”, will encourage a child to listen. However, a focus on what you want a child to stop doing isn’t helpful or motivating. They need to be told in a firm and clear way what you want them to do. That’s why it’s so important that school leaders invest in some positive behaviour training for MDSAs so they can understand how a relatively simple and subtle change to their communication with children will make a massive difference. A group of MDSAs I trained recently at an independent Hindu in London school really started to understand why saying thank you is far stronger than please. Thank you – after asking a child to do something – makes them feel respected because you have given an instruction you are confident they will follow. This significantly improves communication and means they are much more likely to eat their free school meal. Teachers are trained to do this but MDSAs are not, so it’s important they get some training too, especially as they spend up to one hour a day everyday with our children.
2. Pathway to encourage healthier eating. Some parents won’t opt for free school meals because they don’t know how much their children eat and are not confident they will be encouraged to eat it either. As a result they stick to packed lunches and provide foods their children will eat. To increase school meal uptake a very clear pathway for children that don’t eat properly needs to be put in place. Lots of schools say they do this but, in reality, the pathway isn’t well communicated and only parents with children that are very fussy eaters get contacted. It’s important, therefore, that a clear pathway is established so parents are aware if their child, for example, doesn’t eat vegetables or regularly throws away a lot of their dinner. This should be perceived by parents and the school as a very positive and healthy intervention, which isn’t just about a focus on those children that are very difficult eaters. For example, if a child doesn’t eat much food it may be peer pressure. Someone saying “err, that looks yucky” will mean the rest of the children on the table are unlikely to eat it. But if good role models sit on the table and make some positive comments about the food, that should encourage the rest to eat more of their dinner. It’s this sort of simple and effective intervention that will avoid children becoming fussy eaters and reassure parents that UIFSM is being properly embraced and implemented.
3. Lunchtime tour for parents. Parents know a lot about what happens in the classroom because they speak to their children’s teachers and help them with their homework. But they usually know nothing about what happens at lunchtime and often have a perception, based on feedback from their children and other parents, that there isn’t enough time to eat, the children feel rushed and they can’t sit next to their friends. As UIFSM in many cases has caused capacity issues in both the kitchen and the dining room, this perception will lead to parents being even more concerned about how lunchtime is run. Parent perceptions can be changed quite simply by inviting them for a lunchtime tour so they can see for themselves how long their children have to eat, whether or not they are rushed and how many of them actually eat their school meals.

4. Rewards programme. MDSAs are usually very good at giving out stickers to reward good behaviour at lunchtime but this is very tactical and not strategic. Whilst it’s effective, particularly for infants, it doesn’t have a long lasting impact. But if they are linked to other school or classroom rewards then there is an incentive to be consistently well behaved. If, for example, the school has a house points system, then children who are well behaved at lunchtime should be awarded house points. And if the school issues certificates, then ask for a special behaviour certificate to be awarded and present this in an assembly. Inappropriate behaviour, of course, should lead to house points being deducted.

5. Lunchtime learning. Children don’t just learn in the classroom, they learn when they are socialising with their friends too – so lunchtime is another learning opportunity. If children are learning about, say, The Titanic in class, then MDSAs could ask children a few simple questions about this over lunch to help reinforce the learning outcomes. If in their Personal, Social, Health and Education lessons, children learn about how to make friends, the teacher, as part of the lesson plan, could ask them to put what they have learnt into practise e.g. talk to a person you don’t know very well over lunch and find out something about them you both like and dislike.

6. Healthy eating days. However tasty and appetising school food is and however good MDSAs and kitchen staff are at encouraging children to try it, sometimes they won’t because they don’t like the smell, the look, the texture or the taste. For the last 10 years I have run healthy eating days in partnership with school meal caterers which have successfully got children to try lots of new foods for the first time. This involves running curriculum-based healthy eating sessions which invite large groups of children (up to 60) to try (smell, touch, lick or taste) a wide range of school meal tasters freshly prepared that day by the caterers. The combination of everyone trying the same food at the same time and everyone seeing their friend trying it, gets those who are reluctant, to try. To reinforce learning outcomes, children are then invited to prepare some creative work – a collage, a poem, a musical rap or a drama – about what they have learnt and present this at a celebration assembly. Parents are invited to the healthy eating sessions and the assembly as well as a school meal taster at the end of the day so they can make a judgement for themselves on the quality of the food.

7. Communication between Midday Supervisors, caterers and school leader. There is often an unhealthy “them and us” relationship between MDSAs, caterers and school leaders. MDSAs feel school leaders don’t support them enough and they are left to sort out lunchtime on their own. And a lack of clarity about what MDSAs should be doing and what caterers should be doing leads to misunderstandings. This starts off very innocently. If the caterer’s job is to stack chairs and clear away tables sometimes MDSAs volunteer to help them. However, if new MDSAs start and aren’t briefed, they think it’s their job to stack chairs. When they then find out the caterers should officially be doing this job, it leads to resentment and compromises their relationship. School leaders need to meet regularly with MDSAs and school cooks (once every half term). It’s important to clarify roles and responsibilities and ensure MDSAs feel valued and supported. MDSAs often have a wish list of things which are relatively simple to address, such as being in charge of authorising wet play and the provision of their own noticeboard, so school leaders can leave messages about lunchtime clubs and pupils who are absent.

8. School council meeting with Midday Supervisors. The children are the customers, so it’s important that they are consulted about lunchtimes. If there is a lot of waste food, why do they think this is happening and what can be done to encourage as many children as possible to eat all their dinner? As MDSAs are responsible for managing the dining hall, it makes sense if they are involved, and ideally run, a pupil voice meeting with school council. This also helps to raise the MDSA’s profile and lets the children see that they are teachers and counsellors as well as cleaners and nurses. MDSAs often complain that they are treated like waiters or waitresses. This is not surprising when many of them spend most of their time wiping tables and managing queues. It’s important therefore that MDSAs recognise part of their role is to teach, for example, table manners, and explain how eating a balanced diet can help improve performance.

9. Food curriculum sessions led by caterers. Invite school meals caterers to help teachers deliver some of the National Curriculum which includes using the “basic principles of a healthy and variety diet to prepare dishes”. This is an ideal opportunity for caterers to showcase school meals and actually get children to prepare and cook one of the dishes from their menu. Once children have actually made and prepared the dish, they are much more likely to try it. Charlton Manor Primary School has developed a very comprehensive food curriculum. They also employ chefs to support them in the classroom and even run their own food conferences in partnership with well know celebrity chefs such as Raymond Blanc and nutritionists such as Amanda Ursell.

10. Strategic importance of lunchtime. The implementation of UIFSM and the impact of lunchtime on pupil behaviour, safety and readiness to learn is an important strategic issue and should be recognised and included in school development plans. How are you planning to monitor UIFSM impact on attainment and progress? What other school food initiatives can be considered that will enhance and build on UIFSMs? Is lunchtime leading to lost learning minutes, and if so, what changes need to be introduced?

Support for schools. Schools have access to free on site consultations to help with the implementation of UIFSM (Ring 0800 680 0080) and a School Food Plan that provides headteachers with comprehensive information and advice on how to improve their lunchtime provision.

For more guidance on the implementation of Universal Free School Meals for Infants, please visit Recipe4Change’s topic on TheSchoolBus.

Any questions? Get in touch with our  editorial team by emailing



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