8 ways to make school lunchtimes better

Posted by Paul Aagaard · 12 min read · 1498 comments

When we give Midday Supervisors, working in primary schools, an opportunity to have their say during our positive behaviour training sessions, most of them say things like lunchtimes are chaotic, the children don’t have enough time to eat so they throw most of their lunch in the bin, there are long queues for school meals, they don’t listen to us and they answer back.

In secondary schools it seems to get even worse. Young people say the layout of the eating spaces are fundamentally anti-social, there isn’t enough space in the dining room to eat with friends, they complain about queues, rushed meals and staff whose priorities differ from their own. Consequently young people choose not to eat at lunchtime and survive on a few snacks or, as this sensationalist article in the Daily Mirror revealed, they are forced, at Holbrook Academy, to eat packed lunches in the toilets.

We are setting our children and young people up to fail. How can we expect them to make a healthier choice their first choice when the act of sharing food is a daily challenge to be negotiated rather than enjoyed? Schools are usually brilliant at creating inclusive, calm, relaxed and welcoming classroom environments which encourage children to find learning core subjects like English and Maths exciting, interesting and engaging. To help combat childhood obesity and ensure our young people want to adopt a healthy lifestyle, school leaders need to do the same at lunchtime and make sure that both their dining rooms and play spaces are inclusive, calm, relaxed and welcoming.

So how do schools go about improving their lunchtime provision which will benefit and support the whole school community? We recommend looking at the School Food Plan first, written in 2013, which includes an excellent checklist for Headteachers of things that all schools with a good school food culture do well. This is not a traditional report. It is a plan with a series of actions each of which is the responsibility of a named person or organisation and a plan that the School Food Plan Alliance is continuing to promote and help deliver.

Here are our 8 ways to improve lunchtimes. They are all doable and have been adopted by some of the schools we have supported so we know they work, and we know they can help ensure lunchtime becomes an integral part of the school day.

1. School Development Plan

Lunchtime provision should be included in School Development Plans for the following reasons.

Firstly, the dining room and playground are educative spaces. Focus groups conducted by Wendy Wills, Professor of Food and Public Health at the University of Hertfordshire with secondary school students evidence the importance of meal breaks to learning social skills, forming bonds, and negotiating community and friendship networks, all of which can be said to be as formative to students as formal curricular content and eating nutritious food.

Secondly, learning minutes are lost during afternoon lessons due to children and young people talking about unresolved lunchtime incidents. Surveys conducted by Recipe for Change with teachers reveal that in some schools up to 30 minutes of curriculum time is lost in afternoon lessons at least three times a week.

Thirdly, behaviour logs in schools often show a much higher level of poor behaviour during lunchtimes and breaktimes than during lessons.

Fourthly, getting lunchtimes right is a very important way of supporting children who have mental health problems or any Special Educational Needs. Many of these children and young people can’t cope with a dining room environment that is noisy and congested which often means staff need to provide one to one support at lunchtime. We contributed to an APPG (All Party Parliamentary Group) Fit and Healthy Childhood report entitled Mental Health in Childhood last year. The report included our recommendation that the lunchtime period and its part in the encouragement of child mental health and wellbeing should be included in individual school development plans as an Ofsted requirement.

2. Lunchtime observation

School leaders should conduct a lunchtime walk, led by young people, so they use the dining room and play spaces just as a young person does. Climate issues like behaviour, relationships and whether the whole atmosphere is positive and purposeful will be assessed during lesson observations. If schools agree and recognise that the dining room and play spaces are educative spaces, then it makes sense to assess these same climate issues at lunchtime. Is the behaviour on task for socialising, eating and engaging in free play or organised games? Is the relationship between children/young people and those they work with at lunchtime (catering staff, Midday Supervisors etc) encouraging them to make healthier choices and to engage in conversations which involve both questioning and reasoning? Is the atmosphere positive and purposeful enough for young people to find these social spaces attractive and convivial?

3. Time and space to eat

The lunchtime observations are very unlikely to review well in many schools primarily because children and young people just don’t have enough time to eat and there isn’t enough space for them to sit with their friends in the dining room. According to recent UCL (University of London) research school breaktimes are as much as an hour shorter than they were two decades ago meaning children and young people are missing out on valuable opportunities to develop social skills and exercise. Since the 1990’s breaktimes have been reduced by an average of 45 minutes a week for key stage 1 pupils and 65 minutes a week for secondary school pupils.

Schools are never going to create that positive and purposeful atmosphere unless they consider giving every child and young person an hour for lunch. The UCL breaktimes research says about half of all secondary schools have lunch breaks of less than 45 minutes with about a quarter having less than 35 minutes. It is going to be very challenging therefore, without losing curriculum time, to reverse this trend. The solution? To start thinking about new spaces in the school where a hot meal service could be mobilised so more people can get served and get served quicker. When a secondary school in Manchester asked us to help them with their lunchtime provision, we recommended they erect a Marquee outside their dining room. The school were struggling with queuing during the mid-morning break and lunchtime. Building a Marquee on a grassy courtyard space outside the dining hall which wasn’t being used and was surrounded by buildings on all four sides, was a simple, effective and doable way of doubling capacity and significantly reducing queuing time without changing the school timetable. If there aren’t any additional spaces available, then how about considering the provision of microwaves for young people to use in the dining room? This is what Wantirna College in Victoria, Australia did as one way to transform their school canteen into an inviting café style space called The Orchard.

For primary schools, extending and staggering lunchtimes is often possible, so children have an hour for lunch. We have helped many 3 form and 4 form entry schools introduce a new timetable which usually involves introducing a two-hour lunch break, one hour for infants and one hour for juniors.

4. School restaurant

Schools need to transform their canteens into restaurants. Most school canteens we visit herd children and young people in and herd them out again as quickly as possible. The focus is on selling food and drink and there is no importance attached to the food environment. This is likely to create a large cohort of young people who have a poor relationship with food. The concept of creating a space that feels like a restaurant which is welcoming, inviting and appealing is what schools need to create if we want our young people to eat better. Dr Gurpinder Lalli has carried out a 5 year ethnographic study in a through-school in the Midlands on the commensality of the school restaurant. The study explains how this school has spent a lot of time and energy on creating a restaurant that brings communities and people together: to meet and greet. This is a strategic focus for the school. It involves appointing staff with a background in the food industry instead of appointing staff with a general background of working in a school. It involves staff using the restaurant to interact with pupils whilst helping them to make food choices in the queue. It involves putting fresh flowers on the tables and having tables that differ in size, shape and colour.

Lots of time and effort needs to be spent in preparing a lunch time period, that makes sure young people can easily sit with their friends, there aren’t too many people using the restaurant at any one time, the food is easy to access with multiple service points and the provision of microwaves so young people can heat up their own food.

We have helped many primary schools, create restaurant style lunchtimes. What works well here is to create a seating plan so everyone knows who they are sitting with, where, when and for how long. Provided schools can give young people enough space and enough time to eat then it is possible to create an atmosphere which will encourage young people to eat together and eat better.

5. Outdoor spaces

The outdoor spaces are often not engaging and exciting enough for children and young people. In primary schools our risk averse culture prevents children from doing what they want to do. Children want to run, jump, climb and dig. If they aren’t allowed too because a risk assessment says they can’t, they end up frustrated, get bored and fall out with each other. As a result, football dominates which engages a small minority of children, but the majority spend time dodging balls and then pretend they have bumped their head because that is a good way to get lots of care and attention from Lunchtime Supervisors. The play spaces can be transformed if schools adopt a more risk benefit approach and introduce loose parts (scrap materials like car tyres and wooden pallets) The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) guidance says “the goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and benefits. No child will learn about risk if they are wrapped in cotton wool". When children are allowed to take risks (which have been risk assessed beforehand to make sure the activity is highly unlikely to lead to a serious injury) they are leading with autonomy and believing in themselves that they can achieve their goals. If we choose to support them, we are showing our children we believe in them and they can do anything they put their minds to. Giving children the opportunity to create their own tree swing is a positive risk-taking activity one school allowed their children to get involved with which resulted in them creating their own safety testing.

To help develop a risk benefit approach we recommend talking to Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) who have successfully introduced risky play and loose parts to over 400 schools in England.

In secondary schools the UCL breaktimes research indicate that designated sports areas and Multi Use Games Areas (MUGA) are largely in good condition. However, sheltered areas, quiet areas, fixed and portable equipment were either absent or in a poor state of repair. Overall the research findings indicate that the quality of breaktime spaces for secondary students are of poor quality or are poorly maintained. As almost 90% of secondary school pupils said the best thing about breaks were the opportunity it provided to meet up with friends and only 10% said recreational activities/games, it is important that outdoor spaces are inviting and attractive places to socialise.

Although teenagers may not describe their social activities as ‘play’, and its value may not be apparent to adults, their social lives are as important, and they need time and space for sustained contact with friends. The provision of flat and open hard spaces doesn’t support this agenda. Schools need to redevelop their outdoors spaces to include smaller, discreet but visible spaces.Learning through landscapes has produced a report entitled grounds for learning which explains how some secondary schools have improved their outdoor spaces. For example, young people at Villiers High School in London worked with the Royal College of Arts and came up with a design that broke up the playground area using a series of open ended and brightly coloured concrete boxes and benches. Putting the boxes next to each other or putting one on top of the other created different kinds of spaces for students to stand, sit or climb.

6. Staff engagement

Making improvements to lunchtime provision won’t work if catering staff, lunchtime supervisors, teachers and teaching assistant engagement is poor. In primary schools, Midday Supervisors are often very shouty, partly because they haven’t been trained to manage behaviour and partly because children perceive (wrongly) that school rules don’t apply at lunchtime, so they don’t respond appropriately. In secondary schools’ young people say they find the shoppers keepers more respectful than staff working in their school canteen. To engage effectively staff need to do three things – be deliberately bothered, be visibly kind and use learning friendly language.

Being deliberately bothered, which some shop keepers are very good at to make young people feel valued, is primarily about meeting and greeting: to make eye contact, to smile, to shake their hand, to give them a high five if they are comfortable with this greeting, and to say a quick few words, always addressing them by name if they know it.

Being visibly kind is about being empathetic. If a student doesn’t have enough money on their account (which could be due to a connectivity issue or some banks not clearing money in time), treat this situation sensitively and provide a meal; then follow up with parents afterwards. Being visibly kind is also about celebrating good behaviour. 99% of young people are very well behaved and make good choices so be very proactive about recognising this good behaviour every day and spend as much time as possible supporting them. To create that positive and purposeful atmosphere these conversations about good behaviour need to be done both loudly and long so everyone overhears what is being said and they can see staff are being caring, supportive and encouraging. Praise in public, but if young people make the wrong choice then where-ever possible remind in private so others don’t overhear conversations about sanctions.

All staff need to use learning-friendly phrases and behaviour scripts that are non-judgemental and help to quickly deescalate any incidents. Pushing and shoving might prompt a phrase like I noticed you were pushing and shoving and then a reminder that it is the school rule about respect that you are breaking but quickly followed up with positive reinforcement - do you remember when you helped your friend who fell over in the playground yesterday?

7. Teacher connectedness

Classroom teachers who spend time talking with young people at lunchtime could help them build better relationships. As part of a 2-year EU funded project “Wellbeing among European youth: The contribution of student-teacher relationships in the secondary school population", focus groups were conducted with students in England and Spain. One of the main attributes that were linked to positive relationships with teachers was defined as humanising relationships in which the students are acknowledged and respected as individuals and feel understood and supported by their teachers. Relatively small human interactions like teachers sharing anecdotes or jokes made students feel closer to teachers as opposed to other teachers’ behaviour that was perceived as active efforts to keep distances with students. Lunchtime gives teachers an ideal opportunity to share a joke or an anecdote with students either by having lunch with them or just as part of the proposed meet and greet idea.

8. Parent engagement

Providing information to parents about lunchtime provision is important. Parents will have a good knowledge of their children’s progress at school and what happens in the classroom but are unlikely to know anything about what happens at lunchtime. In primary schools there is a disparity, as this Ofsted report on healthy eating identified, between what parents want and what they get. What they get is the menu and a policy. Whilst these are useful, what parents really want to know about is, what did their children actually eat, whether they are encouraged to eat and what take home ideas can the school suggest, to help their children make a healthier choice their first choice?

Secondary school parents are aware that their teenage children don’t have much time to eat and often feel rushed. Any information about how this is being managed and the importance of creating a convivial space will be welcomed. Like the classroom, it is important that children and young people share the responsibility for keeping the dining room tidy and clean. In primary schools this gives Midday Supervisors more time to engage rather than spending all their time wiping tables. Sometimes parents feel their children shouldn’t be wiping tables but feel happy for them to clear up in the classroom. Schools we have worked with who have received parental complaints about this have decided to include information about helping to clean the dining room in their home school agreement.

There are many measurable benefits for those schools who are prepared to step up to the plate and create a positive lunchtime vision with clear targets and milestones. In our experience this includes, reducing the number of lost learning minutes in afternoon lessons due to children and young people talking about unresolved lunchtime incidents, a reduction in the number of behaviour incidents during lunchtime and breaktimes, an increase in school meal uptake and those opting for more healthier choices which is likely to improve concentration in afternoon lessons and a reduction in the amount of School Leadership time spent on managing incidents of poor behaviour at lunchtime during the afternoon.

Paul Aagaard

Paul is a social entrepreneur who is passionate about improving safety and behaviour in schools by transforming lunchtimes. Working in partnership with caterers and local authorities to develop lunchtime improvement programmes, he helps schools ensure that children want to eat better, eat together, engage in good conversation and be more active.

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