A Chat with a Dinner Lady
A conversation about the role of a midday assistant, by Katie Randall and a guide to school dinner policy, by Katie Randall and Laura Thomas
Welcome to Vittles Season 7: Food and Policy. Each essay in this season will investigate how a single or set of policies intersects with eating, cooking and life. For our fourth week, we have contributions by Lexi Earl, Thea Everett, Will Yates, Katie Randall and Laura Thomas on how policy has, and continues to affect eating and food education in British schools. You can find the whole series here:
In this conversation, Katie Randall has a chat with a dinner lady (or ‘midday assistant’ as they are officially known) about her role looking after the nutritional welfare of children on the frontline of school dinners. Afterwards, Katie Randall and Laura Thomas outline the actual policies that schools have to follow when feeding children.
A Chat with a Dinner Lady
A conversation about the role of dinner ladies, and a guide to school food policy. Words by Katie Randall.
On the rare occasions that dinner ladies (nowadays often known as ‘midday assistants’) are featured in pop culture, they are not usually portrayed favourably: in Horrid Henry and the Demon Dinner Lady, an adaptation of Francesca Simon’s popular book series, a red-faced dinner lady patrols the school canteen, stealing snacks out of children’s lunch boxes to eat for herself. They can also play on misogynist tropes; David Walliams’ ‘Mrs Trafe’, from his novel Billionaire Boy, is described in promos for the TV adaptation as ‘dirty and old and … dreadful at cooking’. She is also played by Walliams himself in the show, which will shock nobody.
Although negative portrayals are aiming for laughs, they fail to acknowledge the important role dinner ladies often play in children’s day-to-day lives. Being a dinner lady in the modern world is no easy task; with the cost of living crisis taking its toll on families across the country, dinner ladies, just like teachers, are often the first to notice when a child – or parents – may be struggling. Dinner ladies, for better or worse, also have to enforce policies dictated from the top down – which perhaps feeds into some of the negative stereotypes that children might relate to in Simon and Walliams’ work.
I had a chat with a dinner lady who works at the local school (which I attended as a child). We chatted about how things have changed over the years, how both school and government policy affects children and their families, and how, ultimately, dinner ladies care for the young people they look after.
KR: So you’ve been a dinner lady for how long?
DL: Approximately fourteen years. We started off as ‘dinner ladies’ and now they call us ‘midday assistants’.
KR: Have you seen many changes over the years? I’ve got horrendous memories of that dining room…
DL: It was pretty grim [back then] to be honest. The food that was served was brought in from a different school, so it wasn’t cooked on the premises. The food varied depending on which cook you got, and once it’s been transported from one school to the other, it's also not as fresh.
Around 2013, we got a ginormous hall and a state-of-the-art industrial kitchen. Now, we have the most fantastic cook ever – or chef, though I don’t think she minds being called cook. She cooks fresh portions for each lot of children coming in.
KR: What kind of food is available to the children who have school dinners now?
DL: I would say, on the whole, it’s all made fresh. We have home-made bread. They’re also doing ‘vegetarian day’, to do with saving the world and eating less meat. So cook will make sponge chocolate brownies with beetroot, or make jackfruit wraps with different vegetables. We’re very spoilt. There’s a salad bar with home-made coleslaw. I think all the food brought into school – as in the catering side of things – is organic and responsibly sourced.
KR: Can you also talk a bit about what packed lunches might have been like when you first started as a dinner lady versus what you see now?
DL: You’re always gonna get different types of packed lunches. You have healthier ones, with lots of fruit. But then you’ll get ones packed with four types of different treats.
Because of the different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds of children in our school, it has varied over time. Some children might have cold fish fingers in a roll. Some will bring in two chocolate croissants and yoghurt. They can have smoothies, but they’re not allowed fizzy drinks. But I don’t think any of these rules are written down. They’re allowed to bring in biscuits, or chocolate-covered biscuits. But they couldn’t have a Dairy Milk.
KR: What happens if a child does bring a Dairy Milk in?
DL: We always make sure the children are old enough to be able to chat about it. Don’t get stern with them. You just say, ‘Can you remind whoever does your packed lunch that you can have a Taxi or a Club bar, but not chocolate.’ It’s not written down – well, maybe it is, but not when I looked it up the other day. There must be something, but I couldn't find it.
KR: I don’t think they make Taxi bars anymore … Would you take the chocolate bar off the child?
DL: No. But if it had nuts in it, then yes, as we’re a nut-free school. I think the nut-free school policy was introduced not long after you joined the school, which would have been about twenty-four years ago. Nut allergies, and allergies as a whole, were getting more awareness, so the school made a decision that it would be nut-free. Because even the school dinners are nut-free. They’re not [free] from other allergens unfortunately, but definitely nut-free.
We had a case where a child had nuts. So I said, ‘I’m terribly sorry, I’m gonna have to take them away.’ Most times the welfare officer will come and talk to the child and explain why they can’t have them.
KR: I think that’s a bit different though. It’s slightly less difficult to tell a child they can’t eat something because their friend could die, rather than just because it’s not allowed.
DL: Yes, I suppose. If it’s the younger years and you notice someone has three bags of crisps, four chocolate bars and a sandwich, you’d have to advise them not to eat it all. You might say, ‘Mummy or Daddy has given you four chocolate bars, but you only can have one of them today.’
KR: Are sweet things available for children who have school dinners?
DL: Cook doesn’t decide, it’s decided by the council. She’s given a menu and a recipe, but she might change it slightly.
KR: What sort of thing is she allowed to change?
DL: Her flavouring might be slightly different. But if the recipe says one teaspoon of sugar and then you put six tablespoons of sugar [in], that’s not allowed, because there’re certain regulations she has to abide by.
KR: Conversations about food are hard to have with children of any age. Have you ever had to have conversations with parents?
DL: That’s the welfare officer’s job.
We’re not scrutinising all the packed lunches, you check in case there’s something untoward. I might notice someone’s packed lunch is a bit sparse. Then we’d give the welfare officer a nudge and the next day we would consciously look at that child’s lunch – but not comment to the child. If the pattern continued, then the welfare officer would call the parents.
It’s not necessarily telling the parent off – it might be, ‘Can we help you? What’s going on?’ And the parent might say, ‘I’m on my own, I’m struggling.’ You just don’t know other people’s circumstances, do you?
KR: Do you find it uncomfortable when you have to talk to the children about issues with their lunch?
DL: I don’t feel uncomfortable. I feel sad for them. Some of them don’t have a lot of choice, especially in Key Stage Two – so ages 7–11. There’re a lot of people who apply for free school meals because they can’t afford to give [their children] packed lunches. I should say, at present, the government only allows all pupils at Key Stage One, so ages 4–7, to have a free school meal.
KR: Do the majority of children eligible take that up?
DL: Unless they’re an adventurous eater, it can be daunting. We have to sit down and encourage them to eat, as they might be a bit homesick. We often speak to parents if a child’s not settling and not trying any of the food. Suggest they have a packed lunch for a few weeks to get into a routine and then see if they’re happy to try school dinners.
KR: It’s changing now, isn’t it? Sadiq Khan is giving free school meals for all primary-aged children in London for a year.
DL: So now for Key Stage Two, ages 7–11, they’ll get the offer of free schools meals as well as those aged 4–7. But say in a normal scenario elsewhere in the country, or when that ruling wasn’t in place, if a student in Key Stage Two has had a rubbish packed lunch three days on the trot, the school might give them a few free school dinners.
KR: Would the parent, in theory, then have to reimburse the cost of those meals?
DL: Yes. We had a child who didn’t understand. He had his packed lunch at break time and then got himself a school dinner.
KR: But it feels quite harsh to charge a family for something like that?
DL: It’s hard, but that’s not my decision – it’s down to the school. I think in that particular case, the mum had applied for free school meals, but she’d only just arrived in the country and she was waiting for the paperwork to confirm her eligibility.
KR: Do you think there is enough information about free school meals for parents?
DL: I don’t know, it all goes via the council. But the office or the welfare office would help. We know about new families joining the school who are in need. You advise them, as having to deal with the council when English is your first language is hard enough!
Lots of the paperwork is translated, and on the school website there’s a section on how to apply for free school meals. But if someone is new to the system or the country, I feel the school should be helping out more.
KR: Everyone is struggling with the cost of living crisis, and food is so much more expensive now. I don’t think the eligibility threshold has changed for free school meals. Have you noticed a middle demographic who are struggling?
DL: I suppose if there were parents who had managed beforehand and the child had had quite a good packed lunch, but now if it’s not so good – we’d report that. We’re the first part of the jigsaw. If we feel the situation hasn’t changed, we’ll mention it again. Sometimes that child falls outside the net of support available. We’re not looking into every single lunch box, but we need to know if a child’s eating properly.
KR: Do you think the ‘policy’ of not allowing children to eat the unhealthy items in their lunch can be harmful if it leaves them without enough food? Do the parents replace the unhealthy options with healthier options?
DL: Yes, because sometimes you think, ‘Last time he had lots of crisps, but now he’s only got a sandwich’. You have a duty of care to make sure the child eats. If a child’s packed lunch has hardly anything in it you have to get permission to let them have a school dinner. You speak to the welfare officer and they confirm it’s OK.
KR: You say the rules aren’t written down, but they’ve come from somewhere. Who made those decisions?
DL: I’m not sure. I think the rules came into place not long after I joined as a midday [assistant]. We’re also a ‘healthy school’. We’ve been given a rating – I’m not sure if it goes from bronze to gold, but we’ve got the rating to maintain.
KR: Do you think the policies come from a well-intentioned place?
DL: Yeah. It’s always looking after the children, isn’t it? It’s always their well-being, to protect and look after them.
KR: And you think the policies that are in place to support vulnerable young people are strong enough to do what they need to do?
DL: I do. If there is a new midday and there’s an issue, we always say to them, ‘Don’t be afraid to come and talk to a more experienced midday.’ Because none of us wanna see a child go hungry.
KR: How far do you think schools can intervene, and do you think they should intervene at all? Could you argue that’s up to the parents?
DL: No, personally, I disagree with that. We have a healthy school status. So, in the same way we need to manage the rules around allergies, we need to do the same with healthy food.
KR: If you had to change any policies or put anything different in place from now, what would that be?
DL: I think it would be nice if every child could have a free school meal, not just for the year. There are some children who aren’t eligible under the current system, particularly in Key Stage Two, and you can see they’d really benefit from that.
A guide to school dinner policy, by Katie Randall and Laura Thomas
Free school meal eligibility
Free school meal eligibility varies across the UK; however, in England, children between Reception and Year 2 in state-funded schools are eligible for free school meals automatically. In London, Sadiq Khan has now introduced a free school meal policy to cover children in all year groups throughout the 2023–2024 academic year, in order to help families struggling with the cost of living crisis.
Applying for free school meals varies between councils, and it’s possible to search eligibility criteria by entering your postcode on the government website, which then links you to your local council website. Some of the criteria that could mean a child is eligible for free school meals includes a parent claiming:
Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
Support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
The guaranteed element of Pension Credit
Child Tax Credit (if you’re not also entitled to Working Tax Credit and have an annual gross income of less than £16,190)
Working Tax Credit run-on – paid for 4 weeks after you stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit
Universal Credit – if you have an annual (net) earned income of less than £7,400 (as assessed by earnings from up to three of your most recent assessment periods)
Pupil premium is a policy where the government allocates extra funding to a school if a child is, amongst other criteria, eligible for free school meals. Funding allocated to schools in the 2023–2024 academic year is as much as £1,455 per primary-school-aged child who can claim free school meals, with the funding paid directly to the school in most cases. KR
Healthy schools rating scheme
The healthy schools rating scheme is voluntary, and schools can participate by completing self-assessments; they will receive a rating based on their answers. This can then be used to demonstrate their commitment to healthy eating and physical well-being. KR
School food standards practical guide
Food prepared by schools must follow strict regulations, which are detailed here. The page includes checklists for headteachers, requirements for sustainably procuring food and nutritional guidance.
The website for the school where the dinner lady I interviewed works provides information about the food they serve, which is pretty much in line with what she said. ‘[The catering service] ensure[s] there is an excellent, wide variety of tasty school lunches every day of the week, including Caribbean, Asian, Mediterranean, Vegetarian and traditional dishes, so there is something for everyone’s taste. The lunches consist of a main course and desserts made fresh on the premises each day, freshly baked bread … Enjoy unlimited vegetables and salad items as part of the main meal, helping children to get their 5-a-day!’ KR
Nut-free school policy
Now common in many schools, a quick Google search shows you many school websites that promote their status as nut-free. These policies are in place to protect children with often severe allergies. Schools are also required, as outlined as part of the guidance for schools in England, to provide allergen information for their school dinners. KR
Informal bans on foods
In my conversation it emerged there are lots of informal rules about what children can and can’t have in their packed lunches. Whilst the dinner lady I spoke to couldn’t find a place where these policies were explicitly recorded at her school, it seemed to her that this was common knowledge between all of the dinner ladies and was linked to maintaining the school’s ‘healthy school rating’ (detailed above). Some of the bans on food include:
‘Pure’ chocolate bars (e.g. chocolate without a biscuit filling, which is allowed)
Nuts, or products containing nuts
Multiple items of certain foods eg 2 bags of crisps, which a child would be encouraged not to eat all of if this was included in their packed lunch. KR
Change4Life (C4L) was a social marketing campaign devised by Public Health England, with the aim of influencing the eating habits of children in the UK. This was part of a broader suite of policies under the banner ‘Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives’, which was published in 2008. The intention was to reduce calorie consumption across the population, but especially in kids – despite evidence from the government’s own research that the average Brit consumes fewer calories today than they did in the 1950s.
In 2018, C4L launched a campaign targeting parents which had the tagline ‘Look for 100-calorie snacks, two-a-day max’. The stated aim of the campaign was to improve the healthfulness of children’s snacks. What has transpired is a novel market for manufacturers. Existing products have been miniaturised and rebranded as ‘lunchbox friendly’, or ‘school compliant’, even though they undoubtedly do not comply with the (admittedly austere) School Food Standards.
This has led to absurdities such as the new ‘Big Kid’ Organix bar having 94kcal – almost 25% smaller than the original, made for younger children, which has 123kcal. Curly Wurlys are now 17% smaller than they used to be. One mum counted only six Monster Munch in her kids’ multipack bag (these packets are 50% smaller than the grab bag counterpart). Soreen bars, Frazzles, Freddos, Dairylea Dunkers, Coco Pops cereal bars and Jammie Dodgers Minis all brag on the front of their packaging that they’re under 100 calories.
Despite the fact that C4L’s campaign ran for only eight weeks, it’s now virtually impossible to find packaged children’s snacks that are over 100 calories; whole aisles in the supermarket are dedicated to the shrunken versions. Anyone who has ever picked a child up from the school gates will know that 100 calories are patently not enough to soothe their hunger.
When we frame children’s appetites as the problem, we are not only avoiding talking about the social and structural inequity that drives poor health, we are actively embedding it further into the fabric of society. LT
Laura Thomas is a Registered Nutritionist who writes the Can I Have Another Snack? newsletter where she helps people feel less afraid of feeding themselves and their families.
Sinjin Li is the moniker of Sing Yun Lee, an illustrator and graphic designer based in Essex. Sing uses the character of Sinjin Li to explore ideas found in science fiction, fantasy and folklore. They like to incorporate elements of this thinking in their commissioned work, creating illustrations and designs for subject matter including cultural heritage and belief, food and poetry among many other themes. Previous clients include Vittles, Hachette UK, Welbeck Publishing, Good Beer Hunting and the London Science Fiction Research Community. They can be found at www.sinjinli.com and on Instagram at @sinjin_li.
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