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Am I silly to turn down free school meals because of the quality?

(59 Posts)
sassylassie Sat 18-Jun-16 10:12:54

My DS is starting in Reception in September, and we went to a parents' meeting yesterday. It's a lovely school, but they showed us the sample school dinner menu, and I was not impressed. We are vegetarian, and there is a vegetarian option every day, but it is mostly processed food - vegetarian burger, sausage, pasty, pizza, all day breakfast etc. Not only that, but one day they list a tuna wrap as the 'vegetarian' option, which kind of makes me lose faith that the contractor actually knows what vegetarian means. Then there are puddings every day, but no sign of any fresh fruit or yogurt. And they offer squash, which we avoid at home, due to the sweeteners. I read the government's guidelines on school meals and they don't seem very demanding to be honest. There is nothing at all there about using natural ingredients and avoiding food with additives, for example. It wasn't clear on squashes - it only mentioned fruit juices and water - but his school definitely said they offered squash.

We generally eat pretty healthily at home and I try to avoid processed food as much as possible, but if we're really pressed for time and don't have something prepared in advance) we'll do a pizza or ready meal probably a couple of times a week. If I knew he was eating a processed meal most lunchtimes at school I'd feel obliged to make a healthy option for dinner/tea every day, which is a burden when I roll through the door at 6pm.

So I'm tempted to go for packed lunches, but wondering if I'm silly to look a gift horse in the mouth and also whether my son will be the only one not having the school meal. I don't want him to feel excluded.

Has anyone else opted out for the same reasons? Or not? Interested to hear other mumsnetters' experiences.

nennyrainbow Sat 18-Jun-16 10:17:57

Regarding puddings, at our primary school, there is always the alternative option of fresh fruit even though it's not listed on the menu. And same for bread. So it might be available but not mentioned.

hmm at the tuna wrap! Really?! I think you should point it out.

bearleftmonkeyright Sat 18-Jun-16 10:18:41

I was a midday and in my opinion the vegetarian options on offer are pretty poor. Usually some kind of veggie burger or macaroni cheese. I worked in a small primary school with one vegetarian child and had to stop the cook from giving this child salmon bites. She knew he was vegetarian but assumed he would be OK with fish. If your child has dinners I would be insistent that the cooks are abundantly clear about your childs dietary requirements. I say this as a meat eater.

lateforeverything Sat 18-Jun-16 10:21:55

Yes, as the pp said the fresh fruit and/or salad is sometimes mentioned somewhere along the bottom of the menu to save it being repeated on every day.

I would say yes and at least try them out. You are allowed to change your mind afterwards.

lateforeverything Sat 18-Jun-16 10:23:22

Forgot to say, the school where I work has a very clear list of children's dietary requirements and allergies displayed throughout the kitchen and serving area.

HappyAsASandboy Sat 18-Jun-16 10:49:13

I can't comment on the meals your school offers, but did notice that you said it would be a faff to cook from scratch every night to compensate for the processed lunches.

Firstly, making packed lunches every night/morning is a big faff, and you can't decide not to do it at the last minute like you could with making a junk dinner. Secondly, appetising and healthy packed lunches day after day after day is very difficult. By the time you narrow down child preferences, what will travel/keep til lunchtime, what child can manage to eat without help, no nuts because of peer allergies etc etc etc the number of options may be pretty slim. It is a burden to make packed lunches when it is a case of ham roll + crisps + biscuit + raisins, never mind making a healthier option every day.

Only you can decide, but since they're free I would try them out. At our school you receive a menu choice form each week for the subsequent week, so you could choose to have the free meal on the better menu days and do a packed lunch on the other days? Or if you know Tuesday nights will always be busy because of late working or whatever you could do meals on Wednesdays to save the faff.

I think what I'm saying is to take it as it comes. Try the meals and see what your child says / what food is offered. Consider a mixed solution over different days/weeks.

sassylassie Sat 18-Jun-16 11:24:56

@HappyAsASandboy I wish our school would let us switch on a daily basis like that but you need to commit to one or the other. You can then switch of course if you're not happy, but you need to give notice and I'm sure they wouldn't you to be switching frequently, as they want to plan ahead.

To be honest, I do packed lunches now for pre-school and it is a faff I agree, but I can do them fairly quickly when the kids have gone to bed. The issue with the evening meal is that we get in from work at 6pm with both kids hungry and needing to eat there and then. Of course I could use that time in the evening to prepare the next day's meal, but that seems like more work somehow - not sure why - so I tend to try to batch cook at the weekend.

I think what I'll do is ask the contractor if they can tell me the ingredients in the vegetarian meals (and inform them that tuna is not a vegetarian option!) and make a decision on that basis. E.g. A vegetarian burger could be healthy if it's homemade and full of beans or lentils, but it could be a processed cheap meat substitute with flavourings and preservatives. I might also call the school and find out what the system is for kids who bring in a packed lunch - how many tend to do that, do they sit with the others etc...

nennyrainbow Sat 18-Jun-16 14:05:21

I agree with what happyasasandboy wrote. It is difficult to provide a balanced and varied packed lunch each day. With school dinners, there should vegetables every day and most probably significantly more variation than a packed lunch can provide (unless you're really creative). I would try it and see - there's nothing to lose as it's free. Most children in the class will be having school dinners. At our school, the juniors all sit together regardless of what meal they are having. We are also not allowed to chop and change from day to day although I know some schools allow it.

I'm with you on the artificial sweeteners / squash situation. We don't have it at home either. Since they offer water as well, would your DS not choose the water since he's used to it?

I don't know how big your school is but often small schools with their own kitchen can be really accommodating. My DS1 doesn't like fish and the cook realised he wasn't eating the fish and always makes an extra veggie option for him on a Friday. There used to be a child with a gluten and dairy allergy and the cook made a special meal for her every day. If you let the school know, they should be fine ( and definitely not serve him fish!)

starry0ne Sat 18-Jun-16 14:12:50

My Ds ( not vegetarian) Said he had the vegetarian option the other day..He quite often does...I asked what it was he said Salmon ... I was a bit hmm but as he isn't vegetarian decided to say nothing. So yes I would be very clear your child does not eat fish..

Is there an option to do half and half?

Ratty667 Sat 18-Jun-16 14:21:27

I turn down free lunches for two children. The options are terrible, chips with pizza ( no veg) sausages etc. Lots of stodgy puddings. The fresh fruit option ( I was thinking lovely bowl of mixed fruits) is an apple or pear.

My concern is the quality of ingredients. The sausages are grizzly, cheap ham, cheap beef, over cooked veg. I'm a foodie so the children are very picky over cheap meat, overdone veg.

I think that it's much easier to offer a well balanced, healthy lunch from home. The children love it because they get good quality, varied lunches.

Janek Sat 18-Jun-16 14:27:53

my dd is in year 2 so could have been having free school meals for nearly three years. she has not been, mainly due to my concerns about the quality/nutritional value of what they serve. my main issue is that they have a proper pudding every single day. yes, yoghurt and fruit are on offer every day, but there is no way on earth that is what my dd would choose if a proper pudding was an alternative. i do not want her eating pudding five days a week.

so she has a packed lunch. it is not varied, but it is healthy, and she has a variety of food offered to her for her evening meal.

memyselfandaye Sat 18-Jun-16 14:33:08

I don't bother with school dinners either. My son just is'nt into food, he has a tiny appetite, but at least with a packed lunch I can see how much he has eaten.

However our school dinners are awful, they're brown, beige, fruit and vegetable free etc.

Genuinely the only fruit you will see is the jam in the doughnuts and the closest thing to a salad is the tomatoes in the pizza sauce.

The menu is pretty much the same week after week, waffles, pizza, chips, hotdogs, artic roll etc.

spanieleyes Sat 18-Jun-16 14:49:42

Have you seen the rules school meal providers must abide by?

ShelaghTurner Sat 18-Jun-16 14:50:10

Our school meals are very good indeed. Lots of veg and fruit, salad and jacket potatoes always an option. And dd1 (yr3) is remarkably sensible and will often have cheese and biscuits or fruit instead of pudding. DD2 starts in September and all bets are off for her hmm

sassylassie Sat 18-Jun-16 15:19:01

Glad to see I'm not the only one!

@Janek - I'm with you on that. My packed lunches probably won't be hugely varied either, but they will include fresh fruit and raw veg, protein (e.g. egg sandwich or houmous), but we have more variety in the evenings, and I'd always prioritise healthy over varied anyway!

@memyselfandaye - wow yours sounds particularly bad, even worse than ours I think!

I'm not sure I agree with the idea that I've got nothing to lose by trying it. If I know in advance that it's unhealthy (e.g. highly processed and full of additives) I'd rather my son wasn't eating it, regardless of whether it's free or not. But I would like to try to find out more so I can make a well-informed decision. Has anyone managed to get a breakdown of ingredients in different dishes from the contractor, as it's hard to decipher what's actually in something from a couple of words on a menu?

My friend just sent me a link to her daughter's school dinner menu and they sound SO much better. The vegetarian options all sound homemade - a mix of curries, pastas, Spanish omelette, vegetarian goulash etc, and a choice of different veggies and fruit every day! I guess it's just pot luck what contract your school has...

@spanieleyes - I did read those standards, but there is nothing there about artificial additives, and desserts/cakes/biscuits are allowed every day at lunchtime, so I am sure the school's menu meets these rather low standards. I am perplexed at how they think a squash drink meets these standards though, as it does say just juice and water I think. But the standards aren't very clear on that so I guess they could be interpreted differently.

Groovee Sat 18-Jun-16 15:20:27

I was working in P1 recently and quite a few children eligible for school meals had a packed lunch.

spanieleyes Sat 18-Jun-16 17:04:22

Find out which company supplies the meals, our supplier has a website which gives further information about the meals, they will provide additional information ( eg for diabetics etc) on request and are generally very helpful!

starry0ne Sat 18-Jun-16 17:08:38

Our meat is actually locally sourced and Organic.. I don't feed my ds organic meat at home so sooner it was cheaper none organic meat if I am honest. My DS is in juniors never got the free school meals but he eats more in hot dinners.. So I will continue to pay.

BombadierFritz Sat 18-Jun-16 17:16:09

Speak to the school though as they get more funding for the free school meal kids so they might like you to apply for the fsm even if you then take packed lunches. It helps your child and the school.

Backingvocals Sat 18-Jun-16 17:17:15

Ours are pretty good. They have pizza etc now and again but it's all made from scratch. There's always a lot of salad and veg on offer.

I find out who the provider is. We got invited in to try the school lunches and although they are mass catering they are fine.

Ps apples and pears are entirely the right sort of fruit to offer. Native fruit, no air miles (mostly), available for a large part of the year, don't rot easily. I'd be very happy with that.

BombadierFritz Sat 18-Jun-16 17:18:27

(Just realised you might just mean you get them free for the first few years of infants not because of low income!)

AndNowItsSeven Sat 18-Jun-16 17:21:09

As your ds is too young to make an informed choice about being a vegetarian allowing him to eat meat would open up more options for him.

disappoint15 Sat 18-Jun-16 17:24:58

At our primary school the vegetarian options are pretty good - for example, vegetable and bean chilli, sweet potato and lentil curry, veg lasagne, noodles with veg and quorn. There are also vegetables served on the side every day as well as a baked potato which is always available with beans and/or cheese. There is also fresh fruit, yoghurt, salad bar and bread every day.

It's quite hard to provide a balanced packed lunch to be honest. And the puddings served at school have to conform to quite strict standards so there are a lot of fruit crumbles and blueberry cakes for example.

katemiddletonsnudeheels Sat 18-Jun-16 17:28:09

Precisely, so his parents make an informed choice based on their ethics, as everyone does for their children.

SpaceKablooie Sat 18-Jun-16 17:31:07

DS has a packed lunch because he wouldn't eat school dinners. We're pretty happy with this though - we don't think that the school dinners are particularly healthy (even though the school are very strict about what's allowed at break time / in the packed lunch confused!).

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