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Catering for children’s changing diets at school - by Hopwells

Catering for children’s changing diets at school - by Hopwells

Hopwells, a supplier on our Grocery, Frozen and Fresh Food framework (83), discuss how schools can cater for children’s changing diets.

School dinners make up a significant portion of many children’s diets. For infants, where there are universal free school meals, take-up could be as much as 85%. For some, this will be their main meal of the day for five days a week. 


At the same time, growing numbers of young children are suffering from food allergies – recent reports suggest 1 in 12. Food and lifestyle trends such as veganism, vegetarianism and flexitarianism (eating more plant-based meals and less meat) are also on the rise.


Following the introduction of the new School Food Standards in 2015, there has been added pressure to provide healthier, higher-quality school meals. It’s clear that providing a hot, nutritious meal for every school child is now more complex than ever before.

So, what are the key trends and facts that school catering teams should be aware of, and what products and resources are out there to help them?

Gluten-free diets
Coeliac disease is a lifelong autoimmune disease caused by a reaction to gluten – the protein component found in wheat, rye and barley. Coeliac disease in children is common, affecting 1 in 100 children in most of Europe, but a study suggested that diagnosis rates had tripled in the last 20 years.

As well as Coeliac disease, increasing numbers of people report gluten intolerance, where eating too much gluten can cause bloating, pain and stomach cramps. More people in Britain are choosing to avoid it in their diets: 8% say they avoid gluten for health reasons and 5% avoid it because of an allergy or intolerance, according to Mintel.

Tips for gluten-free meals
As restaurants, pubs and cafés have shown, offering gluten-free options on your menu is much easier than it once was, thanks to a greater variety of gluten-free foodservice products. Gluten-free versions of fish fingers, pizzas, chicken burgers, pasta, roast potatoes, stuffing, cakes, desserts and of course breads, are all now widely available. Ask your food supplier for details.

It’s a good idea to buy specific gluten-free products like these frozen, because this enables you to use just what you need and then safely store the rest in the freezer. It’s also more cost effective and reduces waste.

Of course, there are many other foods that are naturally gluten-free, which everyone’s meals can be based around:

  • Meat, poultry, fish and eggs (many brands of processed meat such as meatballs and sausages are also gluten-free)
  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Pulses
  • Dairy products
  • Rice
  • Potatoes

There are some great resources for schools produced by Coeliac UK, as well as their gluten-free recipe website.

Vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian diets
There’s certainly a well-established trend now for eating more plant-based food and less meat. In the School Food Standards, caterers were encouraged to have a meat-free day each week and campaigns like Meat Free Mondays, National Vegetarian Week and Veganuary have raised awareness about the health and environmental benefits of eating less meat.

Flexitarian (or semi-vegetarian) is a relatively new term to describe someone that is primarily vegetarian but occasionally eats meat or fish. A report from Mintel in August 2017, found that 28% of people in Britain had reduced their meat consumption over the last six months, while another 14% were interested in doing so.

vegan diet means that you avoid all animal foods such as meat (including fish and shellfish), dairy, eggs and honey. Veganism is one of Britain's fastest growing lifestyle movements. 7% of the UK’s population are now vegan – that’s 3.5 million people – which is a 700% increase since 2016. Another recent survey also suggested that 1 in 12 UK parents are raising their children as vegans.

The most common type of restricted diet is of course the vegetarian diet. Vegetarians do not eat meat, poultry, fish, shellfish or animal products such as lard or gelatine. Some vegetarians also don’t eat eggs.

Official figures from the Vegetarian Society (from 2012) report that 2% of adults and children are vegetarian, but these won’t take into account the recent rise in veganism. More up-to-date surveys indicate that a quarter of all evening dinners in the UK are vegan or vegetarian.

Tips for vegetarian or vegan meals
The increasing popularity of flexitarianism, vegetarianism and veganism has caused food manufacturers to launch many more meat-free and vegan-friendly ranges. Of course, vegetarian options are already commonplace on school menus but vegan options aren’t. That could change as public pressure mounts. The Vegan Society’s Catering for Everyone campaign is asking people to lobby for more vegan food on public sector menus, and it’s starting to make headlines.

Vegan milks, cheeses, pastries, ice creams and desserts are now freely available, as well as a plethora of meat substitute products – meat-free sausages, chicken-style strips, vegan nuggets, vegan mince; the list is long. Ask your food supplier for details.

Of course, vegetarian or vegan cooking doesn’t have to involve a meat substitute. Popular vegetarian dishes for children include veggie or bean burgers, falafels, macaroni cheese, jacket potatoes, mild vegetable curries, bakes, chillies and pies. Many of these can be bought or made to a vegan recipe too, and it’s even possible to make a delicious vegan pizza (over 202 million results come up when you Google ‘vegan pizza recipes’).

There is plenty of help out there
As the guide from the Children’s Food Trust explains, schools are expected to take reasonable steps to cater for pupils with special dietary needs. Thanks to improvements in the variety and availability of free-from foods including convenient frozen options, this is no longer as daunting a prospect as it once was.

In fact, stories from parents who have successfully campaigned for restricted diet school meals are increasing. The Vegan Society has even written a blog about how to advocate for vegan meals at your local school.

So, times are changing. Talk to your food supplier about what gluten-free and vegan products they stock and make use of the great resources out there on the internet to help you. Here are some of our favourites:

  • Coeliac Society’s school packs
  • Coeliac Society’s gluten-free recipe website
  • Advice on dealing with food allergies, intolerance and special diets (Children’s Food Trust) including how to create a policy
  • Downloadable resources for schools (Children’s Food Trust) including Vegetarian and Vegetable-based recipes
  • What Works Well (The School Food Plan) for case studies and best practice on catering for special diets.

If you would like to find out more about Hopwells or our Grocery, Frozen and Fresh food framework (83) please click here.