From semolina to spam: shared memories of school dinners

Children queue up for school dinners, served by dinner ladies

Children eat more than 1,300 school dinners during the primary years if they eat at school every day, and many of us remember the good – and the bad. We asked staff and supporters – plus a dinner lady – to share their thoughts.

Ever mindful of the important role nutrition plays in children’s lives, we dived into our memories of school dinners. We also talked to a dinner lady – and her son – and our Policy team’s Dr Ioana Vlad, who grew up in Romania, to find out their experiences of school meals.

Back to basics

From September, all children across London were offered free school meals – a cost-of-living measure introduced by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. It’s perhaps a sign of the times that children need help from government to ensure they eat a hot meal every day.

Khan is not the first high-profile individual to focus efforts on improving nutrition for children. In 2005, chef Jamie Oliver campaigned for better meals at schools via a 4-episode documentary on Channel 4. Set at Kidbrooke School in South London, Oliver’s documentary led to a national campaign to improve school dinners across the UK: Feed Me Better.

Despite championing an end to turkey twizzlers, Oliver’s campaign was not entirely successful, with children from more affluent backgrounds benefiting most from the changes. Even Oliver acknowledged that we didn’t see the sweeping change to children’s nutrition that he’d hoped for.

The UK government now has a list of standards for school meals. These include:

  • 1 or more portions of fruit and vegetables every day
  • 1 or more portions of starchy food, such as bread or pasta every day
  • a portion of food containing milk or dairy every day
  • a portion of meat or poultry on 3 or more days each week
  • oily fish once or more every 3 weeks

But while it’s a step in the right direction, more could be done. For example, there isn’t any specification around bread or pasta needing to be wholegrain/wholewheat/brown, and the NHS advises children to eat more oily fish than the school standards state.

Our evidence shows that overweight and obesity in childhood is a growing problem. With healthy living tips and recipes, it’s a problem that our Eat Move Learn programme for children and families tries to redress.

So have the meals we serve our children in school got any better?

We asked people who ate – or served – school dinners many years ago for their reflections.

A trip down memory lane

Michael Clark, World Cancer Research Fund’s Head of Legacy Development, says:

Michael Clark“I had the unenviable situation where my Mother was a dinner lady at my primary school, which was embarrassing with my mates, and I was made to have healthy sandwiches and fruit brought in from home.

“When I reached secondary school, in rebellion, I had school dinners. I remember having to queue up before the best offerings were gone. The choice was always a little limited and, looking back, and with my knowledge now of World Cancer Research Fund’s Cancer Prevention Recommendations, many offerings weren’t particularly nutritious. It was a little like a conveyor belt, buffet style, with a big offering of chips at the end to complement whatever else you had chosen. Jumbo sausages in onion gravy were always a favourite.”

Michael’s mum, retired dinner lady Jennifer, says:

“Living in south Cambridgeshire in a farming community, it was natural at home for food to come from the land. Michael’s father was a keen grower of vegetables, tending his own garden and in later years that of his parents. We would buy a chicken for Sunday lunch but the potatoes and vegetables came from the garden and the mint was picked for the mint sauce. I was never a gardener, but always a keen cook.

It was certainly more about what the children wanted rather than what was good for them.

Michael Clark and brother“So, I was surprised really when I joined Michael’s primary school as a midday supervisor (or dinner lady) in 1990 that the main meals were not more nutritious. The desserts tended to be a fruit pie or crumble with custard. But the main meals consisted of a pie, or chicken nuggets, or hot dogs. It was certainly more about what the children wanted rather than what was good for them.

“It was also a very different time back then. We weren’t aware of so many food allergies or special diets. School dinners were about £1.20 back then and I was friends with the cook, and know that there was a budget, but there also seemed little interest from the children in having fish or vegetable dishes.”

School meals in Romania

Dr Ioana Vlad, our Senior Policy Research Manager who grew up in Romania, says:

Ioana Vlad“School food environments have been a source of many long discussions in the Policy team at World Cancer Research Fund. When schools closed during the COVID pandemic, it became clear that schools were not only a place of education, but also somewhere that guaranteed a healthy meal for every child; a meal that many were going without at home.

“These discussions made me relive my experience of school meals. As a ‘latchkey’ child growing up in Romania, I was often left to fend for myself. Among other things, this included sourcing my own lunch because, unlike today, there was no food offered at school. The lack of a school meals programme saw a generation of children like me often eating inappropriate meals or going without completely.

Warm pretzels were my go-to snack.

Romanian pretzel“Even at primary school I would buy my own food. In those early years, the school kiosk sold warm pretzels. These were my go-to; I’d buy a couple for the 11am break – or at 10am if I was hungry. Think of pretzels like the Romanian equivalent of a supermarket sandwich, but tastier. Everyone has them, kids and adults alike. Looking back, I could have chosen all kinds of junk food and fizzy drinks from the kiosk, but a soda and a packet of crisps was simply too expensive for my 10-year-old’s budget. As time went by, the kiosk was replaced by the newly opened pizza place, just around the corner from my school, so my meals became less healthy.

“In policy circles we speak a lot about how important it is that healthy food is available in and around schools. My own experience highlights the role that policies made by governments play in the choices we make. If what is available, and affordable, is junk food, children, teenagers and adults will often buy that option.

“It’s good to see that some action is being taken in Romania, and elsewhere, around school food. In Australia, the Crunch and Sip programme encourages children to eat fruit and veg, and sip water, during breaks. The EU’s School Fruit, Vegetables and Milk Scheme supports the distribution of these items to schools across the EU, although it is at the discretion of national governments. In Costa Rica, there are restrictions on the sale of chips, cookies, candy and carbonated sodas in schools. Details of all these policies can be found in our database.

“But more needs to be done to make the healthy option the preferred choice, through policies we know can work such as:

  • Rules and guidelines on fast food places around schools
  • Rules on vending machines in schools
  • Subsidising healthy options
  • Including education on healthy eating, including cooking lessons, in the curriculum

“As for me, I’ve moved on to more balanced lunches. But I still love a warm pretzel!”

What do our supporters think

We asked our followers on social media to share memories of school dinners. This is what you came up with!

Mike in Surrey says: “I can remember bricks of dry chocolate cake with pink custard. It was actually great.

“I can also remember swapping homemade cakes (which had no novelty value as we had them at home) with Kit Kats and Penguins (which we had fewer of, due to the abundance of home-baked treats).”

I still can’t eat tinned tomatoes!

Jenny in Brunei says: “I still can’t eat tinned tomatoes, especially plum tomatoes, after vivid memories of being forced to eat them at school. The texture was awful!

“Yet I loved custard with the skin on top and the dinner ladies used to keep it for me. I always used to think they were being generous but the truth is that nobody else liked it. I also used to love the little cartons of milk.”

Lorraine in Kent adds: “Spam fritters were frequent, as was semolina pudding 🤢, saved by the yummy little Viennese biscuit on the side.”

Davina in Essex remembers “sandwiches that had been made in batch on a Sunday and then frozen for the week, that hadn’t fully defrosted before lunchtime came round.”

And our very own Sarah Drabble, who edits our supporter magazine Healthy You, sent this in: “I always had crisps – which I wasn’t a huge fan of – and my friend Lizzie had dracula bars, but loved crisps, so we used to swap. From the very rare occasions I had school dinners, I remember the butterscotch tart 🤤 (do you think I have a sweet tooth?!)”

And the final word (or should that be song …) goes to Laurie and Freddie in Wiltshire:

School dinners, School dinners,

Concrete chips, Concrete chips,

Soggy semolina, Soggy semolina,

I feel sick, Toilet quick,

It’s too late, it’s on my plate!