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How have school lunches changed in Britain?

Many things define a decade, from music and fashion to technology and politics, the way we look back at a certain time in our life can often be associated with some of these influences. But one thing that can transport us back to a specific era is food, and particularly, what we ate at school.

When asked, many of the CRB Cunninghams team could instantly remember their favourite school meals, which include lasagne, chicken curry, chicken nuggets and even chocolate concrete amongst a few.

As trends in food and health continue to develop, we’re looking back on what school lunches looked like in each decade over the past 50 years, and to see how options have evolved and improved in today’s schools.



When we think of the 1970s, flared jeans, Abba and the decade that brought us Grease come to mind, but when it comes to school lunches, some of the most popular school lunch options include; fish and chips, liver with mashed potatoes, ice cream with jelly, jam roly-poly with custard and rice pudding.

The rise in takeaway options during this decade saw items such as fish and chips added to school menus and becoming more accessible for all, however, processed food in school was still in its infancy during this era, leaving room for hearty meals cooked from scratch.



Image credit: Teaching Abroad

The 80s saw huge changes to the school lunch menu, many of which weren’t so welcome. During this decade, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ended entitlement for free school meals for thousands of families across the UK, leading to a significant drop in the quality and nutritional value of lunches.

The 1980 Education Act abolished the minimum nutritional standards for school meals and removed the statutory obligation on LEAs to provide a meals service, requiring them to only provide food for children of families on a supplementary benefit or family income supplement who were eligible for free meals.

This meant that lunches consisting of British-grown greens and potatoes were placed with cheaper options such as potato smilies, chocolate cake and custard-filled desserts, with only the mere hint of anything green in the mains.

Perhaps due to a drop in the quality of school lunch options, the 80s saw a drastic rise in the popularity of packed lunches, brought in the classic retro-style lunchboxes. 



Some consider the 90s as the decade that junk food has its time to shine before a particular chef intervened in the following decade and increased the quality of food served in school canteens.

Ask any adult who attended school in the 90s what their favourite lunch options were and we’re sure Turkey Twizzlers, pink custard, rectangular pizzas and jam roly-polys would be thrown into the mix. Whilst options such as pizza and jam roly-polys remain on today’s menus, it’s safe to say that Turkey Twizzlers remain a thing of the past.  



Image credit: Teaching Abroad

During the noughties, health and nutrition became crucial in the school dining hall, thanks to chef Jamie Oliver. Jamie sought to increase the standards of school meals served after recognising the lack of adequate guidelines in place, especially concerning the level of saturated fat, salt and sugar present in many of the highly processed foods served.

Jamie’s Feed me Better campaign, as well as his TV show Jamie’s School Dinners, saw him trying to educate and persuade children to opt for healthier lunch options and allowed him to advise schools and parents on how to provide healthier meals.

As a result, Turkey Twizzlers and pizzas were replaced with options such as fish curry, bean wraps and nutritious pasta dishes and salads, focusing on delivering healthy, yet delicious meals. 



With stricter guidelines in place that limit the number of processed foods served each week and to ensure a minimum amount of fruits and vegetables are present in each meal, the latest decade has seen a drastic increase in the quality of food served in schools, with a variety of nutrient-dense, healthy options available every day.

Technology has also had a big impact on food choices, with pre-ordering software allowing pupils to order their favourite food in advance ready to pick up at lunchtime, reducing queueing time and reducing the risk of pupils missing out on their favourite food.

With various dietary requirement catered to, options today include tuna pasta bake, lasagne, veggie nuggets, mac and cheese, chocolate beetroot brownie, but with old British classics such as jacket potatoes, jam roly-poly and fish and chips remaining.

It’s obvious to see how much school lunch options have improved over the past 50 years, with a dramatic shift away from processed and cheap foods over the past 20 years to focusing on providing healthy options that meet the relevant nutritional requirements and with a better understanding of how a healthy diet positively impacts the way children learn.

However, as information on nutrition and food is ever-changing, we’re sure school lunches will continue to see many changes over the next 50 years, but the question remains…do we really miss Turkey Twizzlers?