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 9 Communication and Engagement

THE CHALLENGE: For schools and local authorities to successfully promote exemplar school food provision and food education to all of their stakeholders. To promote the benefits of healthy choices to encourage support from parents, carers, children and young people, teachers, caterers, health professionals and other stakeholders.

Did you know … International School Meals Day takes place on the first Thursday of March each year?

Why this matters

Different people - children, parents, carers, and whole communities - have their own perceptions of school food and drink. Sometimes these perceptions are good, but unfortunately sometimes they are not. These perceptions may be based on misunderstanding or misinformation.

In some cases these important partners may have had little say in decision-making about food in schools, and may have no idea of the quality of food and drink or food education in their local school.

On top of this, there may be limited understanding of the value of the school food and drink service and how it can contribute to the school and wider community, and a lack of understanding of how food education supports children to learn about healthy eating specifically and health and wellbeing generally. Stakeholders may not know how to get involved, or schools may not know how to involve them. By proactively engaging and communicating with children and young people, parents, and other stakeholders they can be encouraged to support the school food service and food education and learn to recognise their stake in it. Their 'buy-in' can be secured, and they can be encouraged to actively participate in improvements through a partnership approach.

Key Points

'So when we consult, self-evaluate or work on self-improvement, we always consult our stakeholders, firstly the children, then the staff and parents. The wider community can be involved too, depending on the issues.'

Primary School Headteacher

Did you know … that there is a Scottish school meals website?

Effective communication and engagement

There are lots of routes to effective communication and engagement and it is likely that a combination of approaches, adapted to the audience, will yield the best results. Communication and engagement is a two-way street - it is as important that stakeholders can feed into food education and school food provision, as it is that they are given information about what happens currently. Partners also need to have a clear understanding of what the school wants to achieve through food, understand how they can contribute and see the benefits of getting involved. Local authorities and schools need to be particularly careful to ensure that their strategies reach different groups of people, for example by providing information in different formats or languages, or using a variety of methods which means that everyone can give feedback.

Put simply, communication and engagement will need to consider:

How do we listen and learn?

How do we get people involved?

How do we best let people know what we are doing as a result?

How do you ensure that everyone understands this new, wider context for school food?

Did you know … that The National Parent Forum of Scotland supports parent councils and parents from all 32 local authority areas?

Communicating with children and young people

Obviously children and young people, particularly those of secondary age, are consumers in their own right. They have their own views on value for money and are up to speed on branding and promotions. Local authorities and schools increasingly have to compete for business with packed lunches, the high street, supermarkets, local retailers, fast food outlets and meal deals. Branding, promotions and access methods (such as outside vans) are being used by schools to compete with outside brands and create a sense of familiarity with children and young people. Advertising is being used in various ways from leaflets, menu displays, tasting sessions and even radio adverts to reach children and young people, and their parents, to influence where they choose to eat. Adopting this kind of open approach will help dispel myths about school food and show how the school food service compares to alternative lunch options.

Both the Children in Scotland research and Young Scot research [46] provide insights into effective marketing practices and how children and young people want to be engaged. Section 4 on Food and Learning includes examples of communication at a classroom level.

The Children in Scotland research also shows that children and young people want to input into improvements to school food. Involving children and young people in the early stages of menu development will raise their awareness of the challenges, values and constraints in which scho ol food operates and help instil a sense of ownership for the final menu produced.

Did you know … 'Engage for Education' includes a school food section where you can join in the discussion about school food in Scotland? See

Learning from other schools and local authorities

How one local authority engages children and young people in menu planning

'We carry out at least eight Pupil Focus Groups per menu change. This ranges from meeting with a whole school, a class or combination of classes or meeting with the pupil council. In preparation for the groups, many will have carried out surveys to get the views of other pupils in the school. We also meet with parent groups and invite an NHS dietitian to attend at least one group per term.

'From these groups, I get lists of favourite meals, the dislikes and also new ideas. This has resulted in new dishes being added to the menu (smoked salmon pasta, crackers and cheese) and also some old favourites appearing again. We draft a menu which is put to another Focus Group to review, perhaps several times over. I review the finished menu looking at costs and nutritional information.

'These groups have such a positive impact on the pupils, it is great to get direct customer feedback and a chance to discuss the 'whys' and 'why nots' with them.' They get more of an understanding of what menu planning entails, as does the Teacher/Headteacher. We also encourage the work done in the Focus Groups to be continued in the classroom.'

Food and Nutrition Officer

What opportunities are there for all partners, including children and young people, to contribute to discussions around improvements in food provision and education?

Did you know … that the views of children and young people were sought when developing this guidance? See

How one school involved parents in implementing a 'stay-on-site' lunchtime policy

'To test out a new approach of encouraging pupils to eat healthily at lunchtime, eight secondary schools in one local authority took part in a pilot project. S1 pupils were encouraged to stay on school premises for lunch rather than leaving school. Each school, with help from partners, offered S1 pupils a package of incentives to stay in school. In our school these included a range of activity clubs for S1 pupils e.g. a Drama Club, a Games Club, a Film Club and a range of sporting activities.

'The stay on site policy was proactively promoted.

  • secondary school staff (Headteacher and Depute Headteacher) visited Primary 7 pupils to outline the initiative;
  • letters and other promotional materials for families;
  • taster sessions for young people and their parents;
  • rewards in the canteen for using the diner; and
  • parents were invited in to discuss the project, and encouraged to support the initiative.

'An accompanying evaluation explored the views of pupils, parents and school staff regarding the pilot as well as assessing impact on healthy eating amongst pupils. School meal uptake by year group was monitored and compared with the previous academic year. We saw an increase of over 25 percent of school meals uptake by S1 pupils which meant that 90 percent of this year group took school meals in the pilot year!

'Following the pilot, the school remains committed, with the support of parents, to the policy that all S1 pupils stay in at lunchtime, despite the challenges including peer pressure and stiff competition from local retailers.'

Secondary School Headteacher

Did you know … The Scottish Food and Drink Federation brings Scotland's schools and food and drink manufacturers together?

Other schools and local authorities have found the following approaches to be effective.

Reaching children and young people:

  • providing children and young people with a forum to raise issues about school food and suggest ideas for improvements;
  • actively seeking children's views on the school food service. By better understanding their experience and concerns, schools can focus efforts to improve on those areas which will have the greatest customer impact; and
  • using a 'You said - we did' board to show that views are taken seriously and acted on. These boards can encourage children to feedback their experience, and gain buy-in for changes. They can also encourage managers to look critically at the service being provided.

Reaching parents and carers:

  • using a school or local authority website creatively to spread positive messages about school food, and include, for example, information on food provenance or case studies about the suppliers used. One school has developed a dedicated website with links to twitter and Facebook to spread the message;
  • interactive on-line menu for primary schools that allows parents, and children and young people, to access a range of information including allergen advice and recipes;
  • inviting parent and carers into the school to sample school food and the dining experience for themselves; and
  • encouraging children and young people to share their learning with family. This might help them influence what food they eat at home, or improve the nutritional value of their packed lunch.

Reaching the wider community:

  • establishing a forum for communication at which the school and community members/representatives can discuss local needs and issues, challenges and opportunities, and how they might work together;
  • drawing upon specialist expertise of parents or others in the community. Providing learning in meaningful contexts can bring lessons to life and help develop lasting links with the community and potential employers;
  • children and young people organising and managing a weekly community café enterprise - linking food, health and learning in a practical way that encourages ownership and participation and engages the community;
  • involving children and parents, perhaps even local shops, in writing school or local authority food and drink policies; and
  • working with media to develop and run a local marketing and promotional campaign targeting children and young people, and their parents, perhaps others.

Reaching suppliers and industry partners:

  • Curriculum for Excellence states 'Creating strong partnerships with a range of organisations helps to deliver a more personalised learning experience for every child and young person' and lots of schools have engaged with industry partners to achieve this. The Scottish Government continues to support this approach.

Did you know … Small tasters are a very good way of helping children to accept 'new' or 'unfamiliar dishes?

Keeping partners informed about school food: The ASSIST school meals website

The website is a fully interactive online experience. It includes sections on nutrition, food waste and obesity and health.

The aim of the website is to provide a one stop shop for parents and carers, children and young people and other stakeholders to find out more about the school food and drink services offered in various local authorities.

The website was created because:

  • the public get most of their information online;
  • there is a need to be more proactive at communicating the success of the school meals service across Scotland; and
  • there is a need to encourage more engagement with partners and suppliers in order to build support and participation.

The website includes blogs and articles about school food and drink. It ties in with the Scottish Government and organisations such as The Soil Association and Eco Schools, and links to a Facebook page.

What steps do you take to ensure that the school meal service is effectively promoted to children, young people and parents?


Email: Lynne Carter,

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