Ask the expert: Food for thought

Planning a menu that ensures there’s a tasty, nutritious and balanced meal in front of Hampshire’s primary school children each lunch time is complex business

Dec 21 2017

School meals

There are so many factors to consider. Here Sarah, our Food Development Manager for our school meals provider HC3S, tells us how much meals have changed over the decades – and how the jury’s still out on the savoury flapjacks.

We also share a recipe for something that families can make together at home.  It might also tempt Rudolph and even Father Christmas.

Tell us more about your role:

My role is to plan the primary school menu, which changes twice a year, in April and October. I work with colleagues across HC3S, school kitchen staff, food suppliers and distributors, County Supplies’ Food Buyer and Hampshire Scientific Service. Most significantly, the School Food Standards which govern the food groups that children should eat in school, how often they should be eaten, in what quantity and what combination. In addition, meals must comply with the School Food Plan and be ‘free-from’ as much as possible (but definitely nut-free). On top of that, the meals have to be thought about in a practical sense. What works for one kitchen may not work for another. And, of course, the food needs to appeal to primary school children too.

How have dishes changed from what was on offer years ago?

In the late 1990's we used to include turkey shaped footballers and monster fish from reformed products. Now the menu is about more natural, unprocessed ingredients and we now only offer chips occasionally. Fish fingers used to be made from minced fish and now we have whole fish. Puddings have really changed over the years; biscuits and cakes such as cocoa krispie cake were offered most days, and cooked fruit was not the norm so our menu today is far healthier for the children.

We also have more vegetarian dishes now and these have become a standard part of the menu.

How do you ‘taste test’ new dishes nowadays before adding them to the menu compared with how it was done years ago?

Nowadays a menu group helps get tasters out to schools as part of the menu development process and feeds back to the group so there is a lot more trialling. This way we see how well a new dish is taken up. Of course, the trials look at whether the dish is enjoyed (or not) by the children, but we also examine how easily the dish is prepared in the kitchen and how well it works with other items on the menu.

How have HC3S’s theme day menus changed?

Our theme day menus today are much more authentic, so for example if there is a African theme we would prepare Moroccan chicken as opposed to a pizza. We plan our theme menus around special topics covered in class and special events and holidays such as Bonfire Night. Theme menus based on class topics are great because they add another dimension to the children’s learning experience – for example, children might learn about the 18th Century Royal Navy in class and then eat ‘ship’s biscuits’ for lunch (without the weevils I might add!).

For Wimbledon fortnight, strawberries make a popular pudding option. Schools can choose to make the meal sit-down or a picnic to take outdoors. World Book Day is a favourite topic, and many of our kitchen staff like to dress up as a literary character to serve such lunchtime delights. When planning the theme menus I work with the same food items that kitchens will already have in stock. All it takes is a little imagination and knowledge of the topic to make it relevant.

What else has changed over the years?

We are much stricter now in terms of what we cook as we adhere to the School Food Plan. We use a dietician to devise special menus for children with special diets which is a growing market and we have more procedures and checks in place so we can be vigilant.

Reducing sugar intake for children is high on the Government's agenda. How are you addressing this?

The current trend is to reduce the amount of sugar in menus so my ‘bedtime reading’ at the moment is the Government’s guidelines concerning school nutrition. For our future pudding options we’ve been trying out some recipes that use fruit and vegetables as a natural sweetener and our current menu has 50% fruit in 11 out of 15 desserts. So along with my menu development colleagues, I’ve recently tried baking a courgette cake, which turned out quite tasty. Something else we can do is look at reducing the number of sweet items on the menu in general. This has allowed us to experiment with savoury versions of sweet classics such as the savoury flapjack – although the jury’s still out on that one!

What do you remember about your own school lunch when you were a child?

I remember we had a lot of really nice cakes such as homemade ice buns, fresh doughnuts, and toffee tarts. But I know we can’t have them now because they are unhealthy. I also remember a lot of skin on custard and tapioca!

To find out more about HC3S Primary School Menus please visit: or like them on Facebook @hc3s education to see the menu for the following day in most of our schools.

Christmas Bake Off!

Across the whole of HC3S, thousands of customers, primary school pupils and secondary school students will be tucking into an array of delectable delights throughout the festive period.

Here’s something that families can make together at home.  Something a little bit different that could also tempt Rudolph and even Father Christmas!

Rudolph’s Flapjack

200g Butter
100g Golden Syrup
50g Soft light brown sugar
300g Rolled Oats
Zest of 1 Orange
2 grated carrots (swap for 1 medium sized apple or 100g chocolate chips if your Rudolph prefers that!)

With the carrot or apple version add the below (no need if Rudolph or Father Christmas prefer Chocolate!)

100g Dried Apricots (chopped small)
½ tsp Ground Cinnamon
½ tsp Mixed Spice
50g Pumpkin Seeds (optional)

How to make them:

  • Heat oven to 160C/140C fan/gas 3
  • Line an 18cm square baking tin with greaseproof paper
  • Melt butter, golden syrup and sugar in a large pan
  • Mix in rolled oats, carrots/apples, orange zest, apricots, cinnamon, mixed spice and pumpkin seeds if you wish. (Or mix the rolled oats, chocolate chips and orange zest)
  • Stir everything well, then pack into the prepared tin, pushing down firmly
  • Bake for 40-45 mins.
  • Then cool in the tin before slicing into 16 squares.