Better eating, better learning: a new context for school food

Refreshed guidance to support schools and all stakeholders to work in partnership to make improvements in school food and food education.

Section 5 School Food and Drink Provision

THE CHALLENGE: To ensure that everyone involved in school food provision understands the need for inspiring menus which take into account nutrition, health and environmental impacts. School food and drink provision should reinforce children and young people's learning, enabling them to make good food choices that will continue into adulthood.

Why this matters

Healthy Eating in Schools [25] sets out the standards for all food and drink provided by the school and local authority. The standards are based on scientific evidence and cover breakfast clubs, break times, lunch, tuck shops, vending machines and community cafes on the school campus or adjoining facilities such as a sports amenity. Education Scotland inspections show that compliance with the Regulations and the 2007 Health Promotion Act is high. There is, though, variability across the country and scope for further improvement in complying with the specific nutritional requirements, where these are prescribed, as well as in supporting the spirit of the Act whenever school food is provided.

However, the extent of the diet related health challenges facing Scotland requires school food and drink provision that not only delivers the statutory food and nutrition standards, but changes food behaviours. School food is about influencing food behaviours for future generations. As part of the 'whole school approach', school food provision can educate children and young people about the importance of healthy food and sustainable living. By refocusing its purpose in these terms the school food service is reset in a new and more ambitious context capable of encouraging behaviour change. Although school food provision must operate to tight commercial disciplines, it should first and foremost be regarded as an education and health service.

'In any Best Value review the role of the school meal service as part of the education and health strategies should be taken into account. It should not be considered simply as a commercial trading activity.'

Hungry for Success 2003

Did you know … that in 2012/13 local authorities spent £66.1 million on food purchasing, and around 90% of that was school food expenditure?

If school food is recognised corporately for what it can deliver, it is able to contribute significantly to achieving the priorities which the local authority has set out in its Community Planning and Single Outcome Agreement.

Key Points

Inspire a positive food culture

As quotes from the Children in Scotland research show, young people as consumers form opinions about the school food service based on the taste, eye appeal and affordability of the food as well as the overall dining experience (see Section 6: The Dining Experience). An enjoyable and satisfying school meals service which inspires young people toward a healthy appreciation of food and therefore a more positive food culture in Scotland has to be at the core of what drives school food and drink provision.

Inspiring a positive food culture requires a fundamental change in diet and menu design. Creative, well-presented menus need to excite, challenge and nourish children and offer an appealing variety of colour, texture and taste. They also need to increase children's 'vocabulary of food' and widen their knowledge and appreciation of different foods and tastes. In creating new menus, caterers need be clear about this objective and take time to think about how it can be achieved. It might be tempting to create menus which offer 'more of the same' based on dishes which are known to be popular, but this needs to be balanced with introducing new tastes, promoting health, connecting to food cultures and purchasing sustainably produced food. The Children in Scotland research, for example, highlighted a desire for more varied and interesting vegetarian options indicating that plant-based foods, grains and pulses are increasingly acceptable and in demand by children and young people.

How do you ensure that food and menus appeal to children and young people but also meet the

nutritional standards and health and environmental goals?

Did you know … boys are more likely than girls to eat meat products at least twice a week?

'We all work together on themed days and our cooks pride themselves in producing an amazing array of foods for children. The cooks have recently won an award for their school picnic.'

Primary School Headteacher

Demonstrating values and a whole school approach to school food

Perceptions about the service directly affect its uptake and viability. Its success depends on the approval of children and young people, parents and teachers. To market school food successfully, good food on the plate needs to be supported by a strong narrative which allows everyone to understand the values that each local authority has adopted for the school food service. This should also explain why school food is intentionally different from the worst excesses of fat, sugar and salt on the high street. The narrative needs to clearly express, at local authority level, the overarching aims, objectives and values for school food in relation to for example, learning about food provenance, dietary health and environmental stewardship.

Above all food needs to be appealing. Displays need to showcase the quality of food used and the care taken in its preparation, and menus should provide information about the range of food on offer. Menus can also educate customers about how school catering deals with sustainability and food safety, the provenance of food, and the priority placed on nutrition, staff training and the environment.

So the food and drink served needs to be part of a whole school approach for health promotion and sustainability. Food on the plate should be promoted in line with learning across the curriculum and there should be a clear connection between the choices on the menu and the values around education and health. This can be achieved through:

  • menus which educate young people by providing information about the provenance of food on the school menu and describe the characteristics and flavour of the recipe;
  • menus which, through the produce featured, indicate the values of the catering service, e.g. fish from sustainable stocks; and
  • menus which make reference to: authority standards (such as fair-trade), the avoidance of genetically modified ingredients, or the healthier cooking methods used.

In leading the whole school, headteachers have a crucial role in creating a mutually supportive relationship with the school's caterer, and finding opportunities to actively endorse the service to parents and children and young people. Overt support and encouragement from teaching staff can be the difference between a poorly perceived school food service and an excellent one.

Did you know … that a choice of at least two types of vegetable and two types of fruit must be provided every day as part of the school lunch?

'Our Catering Service see parents' evenings as an important opportunity to provide information, engage directly with parents and promote the benefits to children from having a school meal at lunchtime. Information provided covers all aspects of school meals including menus, special diets, payment methods and eligibility for free school meals. Where the kitchen facilities in the school allow, they also provide school meal tasters. All Cooks in Charge are encouraged to attend, along with our Area Catering Officers, demonstrating a whole school approach to school food.'

Catering Services Manager

Did you know … that no savoury snacks can be provided as part of the school lunch except for savoury crackers, oatcakes and breaksticks?

Promoting school food in the community

One local authority ran a campaign which featured children whose parents supplied local schools with fresh meat, milk, cheese, fruit and vegetables. This was designed to explain to children and young people, parents and the wider community, through local radio adverts and menu information, why food used in their schools was of great quality and highlighted the care taken to produce the food. Doing this showcased the ethos and credentials that the authority had attached to its school meals service. The campaign raised the perceptions of school food in the area and won the confidence of parents, teachers and children and young people.

Break times, other school food, packed lunches and beyond the school gate

Snacks at break and other times, should be consistent with the spirit of the Act and the health-promoting school. Creative approaches to providing and promoting fruit, vegetables and starchy foods are needed in place of providing cakes, biscuits and fatty and salty products. This is about influencing a change in culture, creating expectations of better health in children and young people, and putting children and young people at the centre of decision making.

The standards for food outwith the school lunch are set out in detail in Section 6 of Healthy Eating in Schools. [26] This does not describe every food that it is possible to provide and what is important is that school caterers adhere to the spirit and intention of the Act as embodied in the health-promoting duty. Only foods which fully reflect the ethos of the health-promoting school should be provided outwith lunch no matter how commercially attractive it might seem to offer less healthy alternatives.

'The cooks have developed a routine where they cook for the children fresh, healthy snacks on a daily basis and the children think it is fantastic. This discourages sweets and the easy pack of crisps. Now break times look and smell wonderful too!'

Primary School Headteacher

The school has a key role in explaining the positive advantages of school food menus compared to some of the food available beyond the school gate. Complementary guidance Beyond the School Gate [27] has been issued for local authorities and other partners on how they can influence the food environment around schools to better support children and young people to make healthier food choices.

In their endeavour to be health-promoting, schools should think about how they can encourage healthy choices for packed lunches whilst being mindful of the impact of rigorous policies which could disadvantage some groups of children. Guidance on packed lunches can be accessed through the resource page. [28]


Schools can't influence the food brought into schools by children and young people.

Myth Buster

You can have a school policy that aims to limit less healthy products being brought into school. Involving children and young people and parents in developing and implementing a policy is important to ensure their commitment.

How well do school-based and school-operated food activities demonstrate health promotion in line with the Schools Health Promotion Act?

Balancing food expenditure and quality

School food expenditure also has a powerful contribution to make in maintaining a secure and resilient supply chain of healthy food in Scotland, and given the right information it can make young people proud of Scotland's outstanding larder at the same time as contributing to the economy.

Against a background of rising food costs the caterer needs to maintain the quality of food through innovative procurement and innovative menu development in order to manage the peaks and troughs of cost volatility without resorting to the easy option of compromising quality. This is even more important during challenging economic times. There is a strong link between food and drink provision and the social, economic and environmental pillars of sustainability which is covered more fully in Section 7: Sustainability through Food.

Did you know … that local authorities in Scotland served over 53 million school meals in 2011/12, and around 36% of these were free school meals?

In addition to meeting the requirements of the Health Promotion and Nutrition Act and maintaining nutrient and food-based standards, it is important to consider the quality of produce used, how it has been produced and how it contributes to the wider policy agenda. Procurement decisions should therefore be based on much more than price. For example caterers should explore:

  • using fresh and regional food in season, selecting produce when it is at its best quality and therefore least expensive;
  • considering how to increase the range of interesting plant-based dishes, seafood, grains and pulses which can have a positive impact environmentally;
  • preparing dishes predominantly from fresh ingredients allows caterers to control ingredients, the amount and type of fat, sugar and salt used and avoid unnecessary additives; and
  • using a good specification for lean fresh or frozen meat, poultry and dairy that is equivalent to Scottish Standards used by Quality Meat Scotland and other EU accredited industry standards to ensure authenticity and traceability, consumer confidence and a quality which can provide a higher yield with less wastage.

The impact of school food procurement decisions have been assessed in one local authority, using a Social Return on Investment ( SROI) approach, as providing wider value in terms of health, social benefit and environmental outcomes. [29] The study commissioned by East Ayrshire Council on primary schools working with the Food for Life Catering Mark suggested that, using a set of assumptions, the SROI index was at least 1:3 meaning that every £1 invested returned £3 in social, economic and environmental value. The research also recognised that behavioural change, at a collective and individual level is key to delivering long-term social, economic and environmental benefits.

Special menus

Nutrition for children and young people with additional support needs should be a priority. In 2011 the Scottish Government produced supplementary guidance on diet and nutrition for children and young people with additional support needs. [30] By striking a balance between providing for individual dietary assessments for medical reasons and creating a menu which ensures food choices are inclusive, menus can help promote equality and offer a healthier life to those who are most vulnerable if diets are poor. Whilst the need for this sort of menu planning is perhaps greater in special schools, all schools should have a documented process in place for dealing with special dietary requirements.

Menus that embrace different dietary needs and take account of specific guidance about food for religious faiths and beliefs [31] will also widen the range of experience and appreciation of different foods and tastes for all children. Schools that have cultural and ethnic diversity have a wonderful opportunity to reflect this is the food served. In some schools the dining room has become the cultural heart of the school.

How are the dietary needs of all met?

Menus that fit the service style

There is impressive innovation and variety across Scotland in how services are delivered to suit local authority and school needs. School food and drink is provided in schools including onsite kitchens, offsite production kitchens and cook chill/freeze methods. However, school food that is transported requires appropriate delivery systems and menus that specifically take account of time and temperature both of which are critical to maintain quality, nutritional quality and presentation. If food is transported it should therefore be from a managed system and with a menu specifically designed to ensure its nutritional quality and appearance.

Although cash cafeteria remains the predominant style of service, providing a variety of pre-order options can help ensure children receive their preferred choice and improve menu efficiency. Smaller schools may wish to have a more intimate and planned menu more attuned with family dining or restaurant-style options with some limitations on menu choice.

Therefore, no matter the circumstances, caterers can consider different methods of food preparation, distribution and menu choice to optimise the service particularly for efficiency, quality and food safety. Changes should always be reviewed in conjunction with children and young people and school management with appropriate assurances given to parents.


There is a set portion size for all primary school meals and another for secondary schools.

Myth Buster

The nutritional standards for school lunches are set around the average requirements for children and young people but it is recognised that there will be a wide range of nutritional needs and appetites within a school. There is flexibility to take account of the needs of children providing appropriately sized portions and this should be reflected in the caterer's portion management controls. Some local authorities encourage children and young people to take additional soup, fruit and vegetables to satisfy their appetite and promote the uptake of the additional bread which must be provided every day as a meal accompaniment.

Quality and feedback

Schools and catering staff need to work together to ensure that the food and catering service is monitored and quality assessed and that quality issues are addressed. Usually the expertise to evaluate the technical aspects of delivering a quality catering service sits with the organisation employing the school caterer but the results and action plans should be shared with the school's headteacher. This document is accompanied by a self-evaluation tool to help all parties reflect on school food and drink provision.

Other third party accreditation schemes can be significant in measuring performance of the catering service and the whole school approach for health promotion and nutrition, and help build the confidence of parents, children and young people and teachers in the service provided.

Schools and caterers should work together to encourage feedback on the service to determine areas for improvement and new ideas. See Section 9: Communication and Engagement for more about this.

Did you know … that The Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Act 2007 places a duty on education authorities to promote school lunches and, in particular, free school lunches?

Messages from the Children in Scotland research:

  • The need for better quality of produce, particularly fruit
  • The need for greater choice
  • Food should be labelled more clearly
  • 'We would like to be told where the food comes from'
  • Improvements in the presentation of canteen food
  • Better quality for better price
  • More vegetarian options
  • More say on the menus
  • Food tastings
  • Bigger portions for older pupils
  • Some young people said it would encourage them to eat school meals if more local and seasonal produce was used


Email: Lynne Carter,

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