Schools have been reacting to new rules which will come into effect next year, designed to encourage healthier eating habits. Carolyn Bointon reports.
HEAD teachers in Ashbourne have welcomed new Government guidelines on school meals which crack down on fatty and sugary foods.
Lower-fat milk must also be available to primary and secondary pupils during the school day under the new rules, which come into force in January.
The changes are the first since television chef Jamie Oliver called time on turkey twizzlers and forced the then Labour Government to bring in new rules on school meals in 2005.
Head teachers have said the revised school meal guidance will help to support their work in schools as they are keen to encourage children to eat healthily.
In the future, pupils will only be offered two portions of deep-fried, battered and breadcrumb-coated foods each week.
Pastry-based dishes will be subject to the same restrictions, schools will be completely banned from offering chocolate and confectionery in canteens and tuck shops, and salt will not be available for pupils to add to food after it is cooked.
The revised school food standards will be mandatory in all council-run schools, new academies and free schools but any academies formed between 2010 and 2014 will not have to conform. Many schools are reviewing the food they provide at lunchtime as they draw up plans for providing free school meals to pupils in reception, year 1 and year 2 from September.
Hazel Jaques, head teacher at Ashbourne Hilltop Infant and Nursery School, said that pupils already enjoyed fresh fruit and vegetables, and were always keen to taste new dishes and extend their experience of different foods.
She said: "Our cook, Alison Feely, makes lovely fresh dinners on site for Hilltop children to enjoy. The extra freedom of choice can only improve what is already a great meal.
"We also expect that almost all of our infants will take up the universal free school dinners from September which will benefit them all."
Catering staff at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar school welcomed the new rules and said they already offered a wide variety of foods and promoted healthy lifestyles wherever possible.
Head teacher Anne Martin said: "The canteen stocks fruit, yoghurts, salads and cereals. Our students can choose pasta and rice dishes, as well as chicken, fish, or a traditional roast once a week.
"We only offer fried foods such as chips once a week, usually on a Friday, and we don't sell chocolate or fizzy drinks. All our food is bought locally – the meat served is organic and comes from Hartington, the chicken is 100% British, and our bread is from Spencers in Ashbourne."
At St Oswald's Infant School in Mayfield Road, the children are offered a selection of salads and vegetables at every meal. In addition, the catering staff prepare fresh fruit for the breaks and encourage the pupils to drink water, which is always available.
Kay Wright, school business officer, said: "All of our meals already meet the government's nutritional standards, as they are low in fat and sugar, with daily servings of vegetables, salad and fresh fruit."
The school's meals are prepared by Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School.
Parkside Junior School in Cokayne Avenue was one of the first schools in the county to opt out of the council's school meals service last year.
School governors wanted to provide locally sourced food in order to reduce "food-miles" and to support local business, as well as having the freedom to create their own menus for pupils to enjoy.
Meat is supplied by Nigel the Butcher in Dig Street, milk comes direct from Wells Dairy, which has local farms, and all fruit and vegetables are bought from Fresh Choice in Ashbourne.
The school council worked with the staff to put together enjoyable but nutritional meals which would appeal to the children. Since the change, the staff have seen an increase in the uptake of school lunches.
Pupils are reporting back that they are now enjoying their meals much more, and the school has noticed there is less waste.
The school's deputy head teacher, Paula Whysall, said: "We have chosen to provide our own school meals to give us greater choice over menus.
"It's important to us that we also use locally sourced produce to provide quality food for our children."
The Department for Education (DfE) said the new standards proved "extremely popular" in trials with school cooks, with nine in 10 saying they were easier to implement than earlier guidelines. A DfE spokesman said: "Our revised school food standards say for the first time that lower-fat milk must be available for pupils, both primary and secondary, during the school day.
"We want all pupils to eat healthily and giving every child access to milk at school will be important."
Schools will be able to decide when during the day they want to offer milk and there is no suggestion of a return to free milk for all primary school children.
Although the previous standards, introduced bet-ween 2006 and 2009, did much to improve school food, they were complicated and expensive to enforce.
Cooks had to use a special computer program to analyse the nutritional content of every menu.
Often, they ended up following three-week menu plans sent out by centralised catering teams who would do the analysis for them.
The new standards are designed to make it easier for school cooks to create imaginative, flexible and nutritious menus.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: "Every mum and dad knows that, if you want your child to do well at school, and particularly to concentrate well in the classroom in the afternoon, a healthy meal at lunchtime is vital.
"The revised school food standards will allow schools to be more creative in their menus. They are easier for schools to understand and, crucially, they will continue to restrict unhealthy foods to ensure our children eat well."