Free school meals for infants: your questions answered

Free school meals for Reception, Y1 and Y2 children
From September 2014, all children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 are entitled to a free school meal at lunchtime. But what's the point, what's on offer, and what if your child prefers packed lunches? We answer all your questions.

What’s happening with school meals from September 2014?

In September 2013, the government announced that from September 2014, all children in Reception and Years 1 and 2 at state schools in England would be offered a free school lunch, regardless of their family’s financial circumstances. Children in Years 3 to 6 still have to pay for lunch, unless they are eligible for free school meals because their families receive certain benefits.

Why are free school meals being provided?

The plan to provide free school meals to infant school children is part of the Children and Families Act, which came into force in March 2014. It’s based on solid evidence that well-nourished children perform better at school. In pilot areas, children who had a school meal at lunchtime were found to be two months ahead of their peers academically.

Offering a free school meal promotes the healthy eating message by providing nutritionally balanced meals. Before the new initiative was introduced, under 50 per cent of children had school dinners, and only one in 100 packed lunches met the nutritional standards required of school meals. Research has shown that children are 23 per cent more likely to eat vegetables at lunchtime if they have a school dinner.

Universal free school meals also help families save money. About four out of 10 children live in poverty, and not all of them meet the current criteria for free school meals. Buying a school dinner every day for an academic year costs the average family £437, and a survey by The Guardian found that half of teachers have taken food into school for hungry children.

What sort of meals are on offer?

New rules introduced in January 2015 stipulate what schools can and can't serve at lunchtime. Meals have to adhere to the nutrient-based standards for schools, which set out precise requirements such as calorific value, minimum levels of key nutrients like iron, calcium and carbohydrate, and maximum levels of salt, fat and sugar. The new rules also state that:

  • One or more portions of vegetables or salad must be offered every day
  • At least three different types of fruit and three different vegetables must be offered across the week
  • Wholegrain foods should be used as much as possible, rather than refined carbohydrates
  • Water should be the drink of choice
  • Fruit juice can be served in portions of no more than 150ml
  • Added sugars or honey in other drinks are restricted to five per cent
  • Deep-fried, battered or breadcrumbed food can be served no more than twice a week
  • Pastry products can only be served twice a week
  • One portion of low-fat milk has to be offered every day

Schools are being advised to develop menus that are appealing and familiar to children, and to keep meals simple, with not too many options, to make it easy for them to choose.  

Where’s the money coming from?

The government is providing schools with £2.30 per child per day to cover the cost of free school meals. Small schools with fewer than 150 pupils are also being given additional funding of at least £3000 in the first year, to cover the cost of extending their kitchen and dining facilities to cope with the increased number of school dinners.

What if my child has special dietary requirements?

Schools are expected to make reasonable adjustments for children who have special dietary requirements, whether these are religious, medical or ethical. If your child has dietary needs, ask to speak to the head teacher about their requirements, backing up your request with medical notes, if you have them. Ideally, schools should involve parents and catering staff in coming up with meal plans for children with special dietary requirements, with the help of a dietician if necessary.

My child prefers packed lunches. Do they have to have free school meals?

No. Although all infant school children have to be offered a free school meal, it’s not compulsory to accept. Schools are free to set their own policies for bringing packed lunches, and this won’t change under the new system. It’s expected that 87 per cent of children in Reception and Years 1 and 2 will take their free meals.

How do I sign up?

This is up to each individual school, but you’ll probably receive a form from your child’s school to state whether you intend to take up their free school meals. Schools are also being encouraged to work with parents and children to make school dinners an appealing prospect, for example through menu consultations and tasting sessions. Salmon fishcakes with sweet potato wedges? Sign us up!