Many schools across the UK are introducing online pre-ordering systems for their students to manage and plan their school meals ahead of time. Pre-ordering school meals benefit schools and parents' finances and positively impacts students' health whilst also helping to combat environmental issues.

Specifically, the introduction of meal planning can help students make healthier meal choices with their parents and increase efficiency at schools by reducing food waste, informing schools of the correct amount of food to prepare and consequently saving money.

Encouraging healthier choices through pre-ordering

One benefit to children pre-ordering their school meals is that it encourages healthier food choices through meal planning and creates more conscious eating habits. Considering that childhood obesity is one of the most prominent health problems challenging the UK, an opportunity to tackle it in schools is very positive.

The 'National Child Measurement Programme' (2018) highlighted that 9.5% of children aged 4-5 years (Reception Year) are obese, and this rises to 20.1% when children reach 10-11 years of age (Year 6).

Pre-ordering school lunches takes out the 'impulsive selections' that children often make when entering their school cafeteria - choosing meals that look or smell more enticing than a healthier lunch. One study (Baildon, 2019) found that by making these tricky decisions ahead of time when children were in a more rational or "cold" state of mind, 14% of students selected the healthier of the two meal options presented to them.

For children who don't voluntarily make healthier choices, the pre-ordering method allows parents to have direct input in their child's lunch, which is especially important with younger children who are less knowledgeable on diet and nutrition. Removing the real-time decision-making process of ordering makes for more efficient queuing systems and quicker lunch service.

An estimated £6.1 billion a year is spent by the NHS treating patients with obesity-related problems. However, pre-ordering school meals could be the catalyst for engaging children more seriously in their health early on before it becomes damaging later in life. Schools have found that this process of conscious decision making that students experience when pre-ordering meals create awareness and responsibility towards food and their health.

At Chandag School in Somerset, the Headteacher saw these habits forming and explained, 'We found engaging the children in the process of planning meals ahead very positive, giving them ownership of their food planning'. Making healthier choices is just one area that makes children more aware of their diet and health.

Tackling food wastage in UK schools

Reducing food waste is a mountainous task and must be tackled to prevent further damage to the global environment. Since the education sector creates 13% of non-domestic food waste in England, meal pre-ordering can help control unnecessary waste.

Schools in the UK are responsible for creating over 80,000 tonnes of food waste during a single academic year. On average, primary and secondary schools waste 75 grams and 42 grams of food per student per day in the UK (respectively) (WRAP, 2011). 

There are two ways schools produce food waste, both of which would reduce by implementing pre-ordering schemes; firstly, the unnecessary disposal of food and secondly, the overproduction of food by kitchens.

Firstly, 77% of food waste is 'avoidable' (according to a WRAP report, 2011), meaning that the food was edible before being disposed of (as opposed to spoiled food), the majority of which was fruit (24%) and vegetables (25%). This proportion of food waste can be a consequence of several factors. Still, by using pre-ordering data, schools would be able to avoid buying and throwing away this excessive amount of food paired with a willingness of students to eat healthier.

Secondly, in current meal systems, schools cannot measure the exact quantities of each dish to produce due to kitchens over-catering to offer students optimum choice, resulting in wasted food. After integrating a pre-ordering system at Henbury Primary School, 'the kitchen reported a significant reduction in food waste. The school chef knew the exact numbers that she was cooking for every day, taking away the guesswork, according to the Headteacher.

The lack of ability to properly plan meals not only wastes food but costs schools around £250 million a year (The Guardian, 2015). However, pre-ordering systems inform schools on how much food they need in advance based on order numbers rather than relying on estimates.

Overall, the implementation of online pre-ordering systems results in more efficient meal services, intelligent food production, and more cost-efficient spending and decreases food waste and promotes healthier food choices for young children.