The evolution of the school dinner: How Oakham’s Catering team feed up to 1,500 mouths a day
Since it was first introduced in the UK in 1906, the school dinner has played an important part in the school day for a long time, with many children and adults across the UK remembering theirs well.
In the latest blog, Oakham School is exploring how its lunches have evolved over the years, with more focus being placed on considerations such as allergies, dietary requirements and sustainability.
The School’s catering team feeds more than 1,500 mouths each day (both pupils and staff), and serves both classic school meals and new, inventive dishes to its wide audience.
As Veganuary is currently being celebrated, it serves as an important reminder that among the 1,040 pupils at the School, there are many dietary requirements and considerations to be taken onboard.
The way food is served to pupils at Oakham School has changed a lot over the years.
In the 1960s, before the Barraclough existed, each of the Houses had separate cooking facilities. There was virtually no choice and the quality was “relatively poor”. However, with the number of pupils coming to Oakham growing thanks to co-education being introduced in 1971, a new solution was needed to feed the hungry staff and pupils.
As a result, catering facilities were housed in the Ashburton. There was a three-weekly rota of over 50 different dishes and fresh meat, and vegetables were used every day.
Pupils at the time were described as “being so conscientious about queuing properly, clearing their plates up, and helping afterwards” and this is attributed to the successful running of the dining hall.
Fast forward to 2022 and dishes on the menu include the ever-popular sea bass and risotto, salmon and noodles and fish and chips. The Barraclough Dining Hall is a central hub for all pupils to dine in. Whilst some boarding schools structure their mealtimes so that pupils go back to their Houses to eat, Oakham School is a firm believer that pupils mixing and sharing this time together is very important.
Angela Munton, Deputy Catering Manager at Oakham School, said: “The atmosphere in the Barraclough at lunch is a very happy and noisy one. The pupils look forward to enjoying the food and eating together with their friends.”
“With such a vast number of students to cater for there isn’t a clear winner when it come to the most popular dish, however, things like meatballs and all pasta dishes are often popular with pupils.”
As part of our Catering team’s weekly bid to feed our 1,500-strong community, the School goes through approximately 800 pains au chocolat, 90 dozen free range eggs, 500 litres of semi skimmed milk, 300 loaves of medium sliced white bread and 50 loaves of brown bread each week. And that’s just to name a few!
Arguably the most important part of feeding this number of children is the consideration of dietary requirements and allergies.
Angela said: “Due to the number of pupils and staff at the School who enjoy the food, dietary requirements are so important to our meal planning and scheduling.”
“We have always catered for all special dietary requirements and most of our gluten free, vegetarian and vegan meals are made in house. Our menus reflect all these choices to ensure everyone is accommodated and dishes that contain pork, for example, are clearly marked. There is always a good choice of alternatives on the menu so we ensure each pupil will always be a satisfied customer.”
With many international pupils living at the School, it’s also important that religious beliefs are taken into account so that every pupil has something they can enjoy.
Healthy eating is a priority
The extensive salad bar is a firm favourite for many, providing a healthy option for all at lunch and dinner each day. It is always fresh with many different components of sliced meats and fish and 20 or more composite salad dishes to accompany them. Fresh sliced homemade bread is also available.
Fresh fruit is also available at all meals, encouraging pupils to make healthy choices and enjoy nutritious snacks.
Around the clock catering
Being an independent boarding and day school that also offers flexi-boarding means the Barraclough doors at Oakham School aren’t just opened for the lunchtime rush. Breakfast and dinners are also served to pupils each day, seven days a week, with more than 2,100 meals being plated up each day.
“At breakfast we normally cater for about 300 people and supper is more like 500. Weekends are quieter in the evenings, however, breakfasts and lunchtimes are busy as usual,” Angela added.
Whilst the Catering team are kept busy throughout the day providing meals for pupils and staff, there are a multitude of other events which they are required for. Twice-weekly match day teas are served for both parents – who receive filtered coffee, speciality teas, sandwiches and cakes – and for pupils and visiting children – who receive a meal in the Barraclough.
Various other events include catering for afternoon tea events and speciality events in the boarding houses.
The future of the school dinner
Whilst it’s important to reflect on how far the School dinners have come over the years, it’s also vital that the School is looking ahead to tackle issues on sustainability and food waste.
Ideas such as meat free days have been implemented in the past and there is the potential that these may come back in the future. Some of the School’s Houses recently took on a ‘No Meat for a Month’ challenge as part of a sustainability campaign in the Upper School.
Recycling has become a big focus for the Catering team and whilst it is already of high importance to them, they are constantly looking at ways in which they can introduce more recycling schemes in the future. Food waste is also being tackled in classes and during mealtimes, where pupils are encouraged to only ask for what they will eat and are educated about the impact of wasting food and food poverty.
Angela concluded: “I think above all else, it’s important that we provide our pupils with the opportunity and responsibility of choosing their own meals. Through education in and outside of the classroom we teach pupils how to make informed and healthy decisions and having a number of options at each mealtime is a good way to ensure everyone is catered for.”