5 Ways to Cater for all Dietary Requirements in School Meals

Time to read: 7min 6 Jun 2022

Were you aware that as many as 18.8% of children have alternative dietary needs?

This is what we found in our recent School Meal Report when we listened to 140,000 parents across the UK, 23.8% of which feel that these special dietary requirements are not managed appropriately in their school, leading them to provide their children with their own lunches.

That’s a lot of children who may feel excluded at lunchtime and a lot of parents who are opting out of the school meal service.

We know that one of the main reasons parents are hesitant to embrace school meals is the general lack of options that cater for children with special dietary requirements, and the visibility and promotion of these options.

And we’ve seen this notion have a tangible impact on the uptake of school meals throughout the UK.

In our latest whitepaper, which collates the feelings of over 3,000 UK school staff on the current education landscape, we found that 50% of surveyed schools have seen no change in school meal uptake levels throughout the pandemic.

This finding stands out, as we generally found that the pandemic encouraged schools to adopt more education technology (EdTech) solutions in their school operations across the board.

So, we know that schools are struggling to increase their school meal uptake when we would expect this to have increased and that this is largely due to the general lack of options that cater for children which special dietary requirements.

But what can your school do to provide more inclusive school meals and improve uptake?

50% schools seen no change in uptake

Understanding diets

To better cater for this range of dietary requirements, it’s important to recognise the number of diets that people are subscribed to and understand the reasons behind why people choose these diets. For example, some of the most common reasons for diets are:

  • Allergy and intolerance diets, such as coeliac, lactose intolerance, and nut allergies.
  • Cultural and religious diets, such as halal and kosher.
  • Ethical and environmental diets, such as veganism and vegetarianism.
  • Medical conditions, such as diabetes.
  • Diet preferences, such as a Mediterranean diet.
  • Health and weight loss diets, such as keto and low carb diets.

And while there are already standards set by the government that dictate what schools should be serving at lunchtime, these standards are more centred around variety of choice and ensuring a balanced nutritional meal, rather than for providing a good variety of desirable options for alternative diets.

While a wider variety of meal choices that cater for special dietary requirements will likely improve pupil inclusivity and school meal uptake, this can seem like a daunting challenge to tackle, especially with the number of potential diets that may exist within your school.

But if you’re methodical and inclusive in your approach to improving your school meal service, the task can seem a little easier. Just try to make sure you listen to your parents and pupils and develop a plan that caters to the specific needs of your school. To start, you could…

1.     Run a survey with parents to understand what the most common diets in your school are

It’s well-documented that parental involvement leads to greater student success, with some research claiming that the impact of parental engagement on pupil progress is equivalent to adding two or three years to that student’s education.

Bringing parents into the fold by running a well-thought-out and structured survey would be invaluable to the improvement of your school meals. With platforms like SurveyMonkey, you can also create powerful and intuitive surveys for free.

Running a survey to your parents on dietary requirements, or better yet a survey on your school meal offering as a whole, will not only give you valuable information and feedback to implement as improvements, but will also engage parents by involving them in the process and let them know that you care about their children’s school experience.

Now that you know what sorts of diets are present in your school, you can make confident strides forward for improving your meal offering to cater for pupils with special dietary requirements.

2.     Collaborate with parents for the most inclusive dinner menu

Parental involvement doesn’t have to stop there. Keeping them involved throughout the process of improving your school meal service will:

As one of the main parental pain points is the underwhelming promotion and visibility of meal options catering for children with special dietary requirements, being able to involve and collaborate with parents will go a long way to removing one of the barriers for school meal uptake. Make sure you put your best foot forward by choosing to communicate on the right channels, with the right messages.

But being able to engage your parents is just the first step; you need to be able to involve them in a way that truly utilises their perspectives for a meaningful change in how you cater for special dietary requirements.

Harnessing your post-survey parental insights

Once you’ve completed your survey to understand what diets are prevalent at your school, take a look at the responses: were your parents passionate about improving the school meal service? Did they appear to be interested in staying involved in the process?

Of the more interested parents, ask if they’d be interested in becoming ‘champions’ for the improvement of school meals for different diets. These would be volunteers who spearhead parental opinion and advocate change within schools in the interest of the parent group.

Implementing these ‘champions’ will be great for parents to have relatable figures who they know understand their concerns, with a goal to enable them to feel as though their voices are being heard.

Involve parents

3.     Work with your caterer to provide good alternatives

By now, you should have an in-depth understanding of the needs of your pupils, the concerns and thoughts of your parents, and are working with them to improve the school meals service to better cater for special dietary requirements.

But armed with all of this insight, how can you make meaningful change?

By law, schools must make provision for children with special dietary needs, but this doesn’t mean that these provisions will be favourable and/or good alternatives to the main meal. To really look after pupils with different dietary needs, this means not only providing one alternative but a variety of good options each day. In turn, you’ll surely be rewarded with a greater school meal uptake.

With the knowledge of what diets exist in your school and how prevalent they are, spend some time working with your catering provider to craft a bespoke menu for your school’s needs.

Find out the capabilities of your catering provider, including what they are able to produce with their ingredients and suppliers, how the preparation of their food will ensure no cross-contamination, and how they are able to provide quality meals for the diets prevalent in your school.

4.     Make sure your meal management system is up to the task

You don’t have to go through this process alone. There are powerful tools out there designed to help your school’s meal service. You could benefit from:

  • ParentPay Meal Manager, a cashless and paperless meal management system to maximise efficiency and improve safety.
  • Cypad Meal Selection, a centrally managed meal selection system to engage pupils and give parents autonomy over their children’s school mealtimes.
  • BlueRunner School Meal Ordering, a school meal ordering platform that allows parents to order their children’s school meals simply and easily, driving engagement and uptake whilst safeguarding allergen and dietary requirements. The perfect solution for busy secondary schools looking to streamline their busy mealtimes.

Each with different focuses and specialisms, these systems are all built from the ground up to provide your school with the most seamless school meal service, while improving pupil safety and inclusion.

When booking their children’s school meals, parents need to be able to clearly see all the relevant information about a meal, including dietary and allergen information, so they can pick the perfect choice for their children.

We know this isn’t always easily done, and we’ve heard from parents that this is often where some schools fall down. One parent we spoke to in our recent School Meal Report said: “I’d like to see a description of what each dish is because the vague names on the menu don’t always match what we expect it to be.”

With a good meal management solution in place, these problems are tackled head on.

Dietary and allergen information is clearly displayed when parents are choosing their children’s meals. Parents also have the power and agency to update their children’s dietary and allergen needs through centrally managed menus, ensuring that your school’s caterer will always be able to provide an appropriate menu that is inclusive for every pupil.

5.     Learn about labelling and different diets

Remove all ambiguity around dietary and allergen information by teaching pupils about food labelling and how this is important for a wide range of different diets.

This can be a great tool for engaging children, empowering them to confidently know what they can and can’t eat within their individual dietary requirements, and how to find this information on food packaging. It’s also a great way to actively engage your school staff, raising a greater visibility about the importance of catering for different diets and why it matters.

Engage parents and empower staff

Catering for the children in your school

Providing your school with the tools to improve its meal service and promote inclusivity will help to break down a key barrier for parents who are reluctant to opt their children in for school meals.

Catering for those with special dietary requirements through collaboration and understanding is the right place to start. Engage parents, invest in the right software, and empower people through education and your school meal uptake is likely to soar.

Software such as ParentPay Meal Manager, which specialises in providing parents and schools with the safest and most streamlined school meal service possible, could be pivotal in your strategy.

With the EdTech sector booming in recent years, seeing a 71.5% growth in 2020, many aspects of school operations have been streamlined with the aid of such software.

To learn more about how schools have flourished with the help of specialist EdTech software in the past year, read our latest whitepaper, ‘How the pandemic has fundamentally changed the way UK schools operate’:

Download our whitepaper

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