School’s tips to encourage children to try new foods

This story was published 19 April 2022

A school has shared tips for encouraging children to try new foods, as part of a campaign across North Yorkshire to encourage families to take up school meals as an affordable, healthy option.

Children collecting their school meals

Our campaign is designed to encourage more pupils to try nutritionally balanced school meals. In particular, the campaign aims to make sure families eligible for free meals take up the offer as the cost of living impacts further on family budgets.

Our school meals service is also helping by tackling some of the barriers to families opting for food prepared in school. This includes encouraging primary-aged children to try new foods and broaden their tastes by offering them small taster portions at mealtimes. School catering teams can offer individual appointments to parents and carers of children with food allergies, to provide information and reassurance.

At Thirsk Community Primary School, staff working in the school kitchens see it as part of their role to get children to try new foods and broaden their tastes when it comes to different dishes. Their approach in letting children try small tasters alongside their favourite food proves very successful.

Luan Van Huet, a member of the school’s administration team, said: “We know one of the reasons some families don’t opt for school meals is that parents can be concerned their child won’t eat anything on the menu, or will only eat certain foods.

“Sometimes we will get a child who just wants jacket potatoes or sandwiches for dinner. Staff will often pop a little bit of something like cheese and broccoli pasta on the side so they can try it when they’re sat down with their friends. If they like that they can try it the next time as well.

“Another reason a child may be reluctant to try new food is that it might be unfamiliar to them – we can help with that too.

“For instance, when we introduced Quorn nuggets, we called them Quorn dippers, as we know a lot of children like chicken dippers from McDonald’s. We let them know they tasted just like McDonald’s chicken nuggets and gave everyone a Quorn nugget to try. They all realised the liked them and now it’s a popular dish with the children.

“But Quorn vegetarian products and sausages are the only processed food we serve – everything else from the pies, to bolognese and bread is handmade fresh. Making everything fresh also means we can hide vegetables in dishes – if there’s a tomato-based bolognese we will blitz the vegetables so it looks like tomato sauce.

“As we’ve made the meals from scratch, we are able to make sure we have the correct amount of salt content and sugar content for each child and the meals don’t contain additives.”

Our school meals service also makes sure food preparation for children with allergens is given the serious approach needed.

Luan explained how this includes keeping charts with a photograph of each child with allergies, alongside a list of their allergens. Every day the school writes down everything the child has eaten that day and a photograph of everything the child has eaten. The record is kept for a term so if any child does fall ill, a full record of everything they have eaten is available. Nothing is left to chance.

Luan said: “We understand parent and carers’ concerns if they have a child with food allergies or intolerances.

“We will ask at the start of every term for medical information for each child and if they have any other dietary requirements. So we have that information on the system to give to all the staff. But we will also have a meeting with the parents individually to see what they do like so they can maybe incorporate that food in their child’s meals.

“If parents have concerns about allergens or food intolerances they can always come and speak to us.

“The teachers and catering staff have photo ID of children who have dietary requirements or allergens, or a child with a particular illness, so when the children are in the dining hall staff will know if something is a medical emergency straight away.

“We have a number of children with allergies, ranging from mild allergies or food intolerances to those children who need to carry epi-pens. Parents who have children with allergies shouldn’t worry, as we really do cater for those needs.”

Thirsk Primary School pupil Erin, in Year 2, said she had lots of favourite meals in school: “I like the puddings because they are different every single day and sometimes they are really healthy, like apples, which are sometimes an option for puddings.

“My favourite meal is pizza, because of the shape and taste and the crust is quote soft and my second favourite meal is lasagne and my third favourite is spaghetti bolognese with extra meat balls.”

Ridley, in Year 6 said: “We have a different meal every day; every Friday its something to do with fish and there’s plenty of other options if you don’t like the school dinner that day; you can have a baked potato or sandwich and the fillings and potato toppings change every day. The staff are quite nice too.”

Our catering service, NYES Catering, serves nearly seven million meals a year to pupils in the county. All the meals are nutritionally balanced - prepared according to the national  healthy eating and catering standards - and are produced from fresh in a school kitchen each day, using fresh meat, poultry, fruit and vegetables sourced from the region. Local suppliers are used where possible.

School meals are designed to provide at least three of the five fruit and vegetables recommended a day, are free from additives associated with health problems in children and young people, including sweeteners and colourings and contain limited amounts of sugar. They also use fresh, locally produced ingredients where possible, helping support the local economy and contributing to reducing the county’s carbon footprint.

Corporate Director of Children and Young People’s Service, Stuart Carlton, said: “We want to make sure children get the best out of their day at school and part of that is making sure they have access to good nutrition every day. Having a hot, fresh meal each day means they can enjoy sitting down for a meal with their friends and will also help them concentrate in their lessons during the rest of the school day.”

Find more information on qualifying for free school meals and how to apply.