BBC Good Food Magazine
WHY I’M REIMAGINING SCHOOL DINNERS
We hear from a top chef who believes children can excel with interesting meals on the menu
School dinners have changed a bit since potato smiles and pink custard. You might expect to see dishes like chicken shawarma or edible gardens (featuring guacamole ‘grass’) on restaurant menus, but now, they’re served in some school canteens in the UK. The Chefs in Schools initiative wants to introduce more nutritious, creative meals to improve food education – notably in special educational needs schools. It began when Nicole Pisani (pictured), who was head chef at London’s Nopi, accepted a call-out on social media for a chef to work in a state primary school in Hackney.
‘The first thing I noticed was the lack of fresh produce,’ Nicole says. ‘I started by changing the menus and taught the team to cook from scratch. We took seafood into classes to make them curious about food. We realised that we could replicate this model, and co-founded the charity. We recruit a chef to train, or go into schools and help an existing team.’
Nicole now travels around the country to work with other schools, and highlights how important it is to make from-scratch meals for children. ‘You’re able to control salt, sugar and fat content, and increase nutrients,’ she says. ‘We have former street-food chefs at one school who started a fermentation station. They make koji (fermented rice) with the kids and serve it at lunch. Schools are a great place to get kids excited about food that doesn’t come from a packet.’
Louise Nichols, one of the co-founders and an exec head teacher, has seen significant changes since working with Nicole. ‘School food is often overlooked in education as one of things that helps to develop happy, healthy adults. Five years on, academic performance is some of the highest in the country, and attendance and behaviour is great.’ Head teacher Nick Mallender has seen an improvement, despite budget restrictions. ‘With the skill of a chef who can make ingredients go further, turn a cheaper cut of meat into a great meal, or cook vegetarian food well, that’s a big cost-cutter.’
Next, they plan to roll out training nationwide. ‘It would give schools the know-how to meet food standards, guidance on portion control and tips on making healthier choices more enticing,’ Nicole explains. ‘We want to raise awareness of how creative school food can be.’
Sheila Dillon brings together a panel of school food visionaries, including Nicole Pisani, on
The Food Programme. To listen, search BBC Sounds for
School Food: Re-imagined.