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 6 The Dining Experience

THE CHALLENGE: To create an experience that encourages positive social interaction in an environment that children and young people choose to use, enjoy and look forward to.

Did you know … more than 97,000 children in Scotland are served a free school lunch on a typical day?

Why this matters

Children and young people, whether they take a school meal or a packed lunch, can benefit from sharing a positive dining experience. A positive dining experience supports children and young people to make healthy food choices which enhance their learning around food and health. It provides them with the opportunity to socialise with friends and to build relationships across the school community and teaches them to value and enjoy their lunchtime experience. Children and young people benefit from an appealing variety of food choices which support a healthy lifestyle - particularly important where a school lunch is, as is the case for some, the only nutritious meal of the day.

Whatever their lunch choice in school, children and young people are entitled to have an equally good dining experience. This should be in a safe, welcoming and nurturing environment which is conducive to dining and learning. In short, the dining experience should support a positive attitude towards food and education and demonstrate a whole school, whole child approach.

Key Points

What children and young people want

The dining experience is about more than just the food and drink served. It is about the atmosphere, the queuing times and conditions, the seating, the plates, the cutlery, the interaction with those serving, taking payment, supervising and supporting, the location of the serving hatches or tables, and more. Children and young people can be experienced consumers with prior expectations, perhaps based on word of mouth, opinions of peers, parental perception, and marketing, advertising and branding inside and outside school. Every day these expectations will influence decisions around where to spend lunchtime.

'Our canteens are friendly places with colourful wall displays. The atmosphere and ethos encourages social interaction and the catering service is provided by people who understand the children's needs at lunchtime.'

Primary School Headteacher

Did you know … boys are more likely than girls to buy their lunch outside school?

Dining experience depends on numerous factors

Some ideas on improving the dining experience from the Children in Scotland research

Did you know … 4% of 15 year-olds don't eat lunch at all on school days?

'As this is something that matters to children and young people, their voices need to be heard and their views solicited if future changes are going to be effective and meaningful.'

Children in Scotland research, key messages and conclusions

It is important to listen to the opinions of children and young people, parents and the whole school about the dining experience. Surveys can be a good way to gather views and information. Also, school working groups can play a useful role in supporting the school meal service and encouraging children and young people to use their school dining hall and to reinforce messages given in class (see Section 4: Food and Learning) about food and health.

How well does the physical environment of the dining area meet the needs of all children and young people?

Social interaction

'Probably the most common reasons given by young people for choosing to eat outside of school at lunchtime was freedom and the wish to socialise.'

Children in Scotland research, key messages and conclusions

'Children want to eat, talk to their friends and then get on with the main business of playing and having fun.'

Children in Scotland research, key messages and conclusions

A key message from the Children in Scotland, and other, research is that freedom and the wish to socialise is a significant reason for leaving the school at lunchtime. A good school dining experience provides children and young people with opportunities to socialise, for example by allowing those having packed and school lunches to mix. The dining experience provides children and young people across the school with a chance to come together and support each other. It can also be a good opportunity to explore and celebrate cultural diversity.

Did you know … girls are more likely than boys to eat a school lunch?

How does the school ensure that the dining area provides a positive, inclusive social environment for all?

Management of lunchtimes - queues, length of lunch break, supervision and other things

Improving the lunchtime experience in one primary school

'Lunchtime is short, it is noisy in the canteen and children want to rush their food and go out to play. Just some of the moans from our Primary 7s last term. All agreed that the cooks worked really hard and that our lunch menu was 'cool'. How on earth do you manage to serve so many school dinners to so many children in 45 minutes or an hour? Ask the children! We sought their suggestions and solutions using a class by class approach. And while the children were busy mind-mapping in classes the parents were also asked for their ideas by way of questionnaires.

'The solution? Stagger the lunch hours. Infants at 12.15, the mid area at 12.30 and upper at 12.45. The children get to go out first and then a bell brings them back in. Queues are shorter and there is less noise in the canteen. Socially, the children love their lunch break and by easing congestion, we were also letting children sit for slightly longer in the lunch hall. The children are pleased with the new arrangements and the staff notice a difference in the noise level. We've also made changes to our payment and food service systems and queuing has reduced.'

Primary School Headteacher

Many schools have found creative ways to improve management of lunchtimes and in doing so remove barriers to using the school meals service. Some schools use existing space such as unused classrooms or common areas as additional dining space; others reduce queuing by staggering lunchtimes or allow children to take a seat and be called for lunch; and others offer an optional pre-order system where coloured wrist bands indicate what food option has been ordered. Issues around payment systems were raised in the Children in Scotland research and some local authorities have seen improvements when implementing on-line payment systems. Overcoming barriers to using the schools meals service can be particularly important for children with disabilities or additional support needs.

The length of time available for lunch is an important consideration. There is a fine balance to be reached as the break needs to be long enough to feed children and give them a chance to pause in a busy school day, but not too long that lunchtime drags. School timetabling should place high importance on allowing time for children and young people to eat their food in an unhurried, healthy, sociable and enjoyable way.

When well-managed, the routines of lunchtime - including queuing, clearing up, and interacting with catering and other staff - are opportunities for children and young people to develop or practice respect, patience, and good manners and develop social and life skills. Lunchtime provides the chance to demonstrate the ethos and culture of the school and its high expectations and in doing so help children and young people learn to take responsibility for themselves and their actions. For example, work to achieve or maintain an Eco Schools Scotland award provides a perfect opportunity for a school to address levels of litter in the school grounds, including dining areas.

'The eco-committee interviewed the catering manager about reducing waste in the dining hall. Children now choose their meal option in the morning so less food is wasted. We're now working on our next steps for monitoring packed lunch waste with a view to creating a policy.'

Primary School Teacher

And lunchtime can be used to support children to develop good eating habits and life skills. For example, lunchtime supervisory assistants can work closely with the school's catering staff to encourage the less adventurous to try different foods, and to monitor food choices and waste. Supervisors can also assist children and young people to cut up food and teach the basics of using cutlery.

Did you know … that additional bread must be provided every day as a meal accompaniment?

Learning from others

In order to attract more children and young people some services have studied which food businesses children and young people use outside of school. As a result café-style outlets that closely resemble the high street have been introduced in many schools with great success. Other schools have introduced 'stay-on-site' policies with great success. The Beyond the School Gate guidance [32] explains more about these approaches. Fundamentally, a pleasant dining space which offers quality food in an educational context is understood as sound investment.

The Scottish Futures Trust has reported some 'lessons learned' [33] around what makes a good dining area in secondary schools in Scotland. Although based on experiences from new-build schools, its findings may be relevant to schools planning improvements to existing dining spaces. The Children in Scotland research also offers some good insights into what children and young people want from their dining space.

How do you gather and use feedback on the dining experience?

The dining hall meets the classroom

The experience in the dining hall should reinforce messages in the classroom. For example, many schools link classrooms to the dining hall using themed days - children may be learning about international customs, history, music and language in the classroom, and then eating complementary food at lunchtime. International School Meals Day which takes place every March is an excellent opportunity to run this sort of project.

It can be mutually beneficial for catering staff to work closely with teachers to plan how the dining experience can help overcome resistance to unfamiliar foods or low take up of fruit and vegetables or less popular food. For more information see Section 4: Food and Learning.


Email: Lynne Carter,

Back to top