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Through a parent’s eyes: Reviewing the school meal service

Nov 09, 2021

Take a step back and view the school meal service through a new lens.

It's not often that the school meal service gets looked at from the perspective of the parent. There’s been plenty of studies that have aimed to understand the challenges of the caterer and the school, but together with LACA, ParentPay and Cypad (part of the ParentPay Group) have gathered the views of 140,000 parents; one of the largest ever undertaken with parents.

UK mapUnderstanding the parent’s view on school meals is invaluable for us, as well as schools and caterers. Learning their experiences and challenges will help us in our mission to improve our services to keep families happy, children safe, and increase meal uptake.

To gain sight of the parent’s perspective, we conducted our study in June 2021 and 140,000 parents took the time to respond. We asked ParentPay users from primary and secondary schools across the UK about their opinions and experiences with the school meal service, ranging from their thoughts on meal provision, meal choice, allergies, quality and sustainability, communication, and plenty more.

But what did we find? Read on to learn what parents really think about the school meal service…

We found that 80% of parents feel that school meals are priced correctly

Meal provisionDespite any other reservations about the school meal service, the majority of the parents who took part in this study are happy with the price of their school meals.

And with over 88% of primary school and 91% of secondary school pupils opting for a school meal at least once a week, it’s encouraging for schools and caterers to hear that parents are happy with their meal pricing.

We also asked parents what schools could do to encourage more of them to choose school meals more frequently. They told us that they'd like to see a wider variety of meal options, more hot and cold options, and lower costs for hot meals.

We found that parents want more information on allergy and diet management

AllergiesBefore even considering intolerances, we know that 1-2% of adults and 5-8% of children in the UK have a food allergy, equating to roughly 2 million people. It’s no wonder, then, that our study found that parents want more allergy and dietary information to go with their school meal selections.

With the number of parents who need to accommodate a child with special diets, it’s important for schools and caterers to be able to provide accurate information and meal options for all children.

Just over 75% of parents felt that allergies are managed appropriately, which is reassuring now that Natasha's law is in effect. But that leaves 23.8% of parents who feel that allergies and special dietary requirements could be managed better, resulting in them opting to provide their own lunches for their children.

Considering the safety concerns this poses, and the number of children who require a special diet, it's clear that there's still an opportunity for schools and caterers to make improvements, with the hopes to increase parent confidence by providing safer and more inclusive meal options, increasing meal uptake.

Providing parents with this vital information can be easy and intuitive. With ParentPay Meal Manager, parents have the ability to update allergies and dietary needs through centrally managed menus, allowing caterers to input allergy information in an automated and streamlined process which reduces human error and minimises risk.

We found that 65.8% of parents say they don’t get enough information from schools about menus

School menusAt a restaurant, it’s always welcome to be able to see the full list of options, with prices, dietary information, and some ingredients. So why not give the school meal menu the same treatment?

Aside from allergies and dietary information, over 65% of parents have told us that they don’t get enough information from schools about the menu for the week.

One parent said: “I’d like to see a description of what each dish is because the vague names on the menu don't always match what we expect it to be.”

With 33% of parents also saying that they don’t know if their school provides a breakfast club facility, there’s a clear need for many schools to provide more detailed information on the menus available for children throughout the day.

Schools will likely already have all the information, and with software like Meal Manager, it’ll only take a few clicks to share it with parents too. It even offers the ability for families to pre-order meals from their home, empowering parents to select the best choices with their children.

We found that parents are looking for the ability to order meals in advance

Being able to select and order school meals in their own time and in the comfort of their own home is a key priority for busy parents and families. Having clear visibility on the menu, the functionality for pre-ordering, and vital allergy/dietary information is something that many parents would be grateful for.

These wishes are relatively simple ones to grant. We recommend that teachers and senior leadership teams engage with caterers for a whole-school approach to promote healthy living and alternative food options for different dietary and allergy requirements.

Investment in technology can be a great place to start for schools and caterers. Taking meal management online, reducing paper process, and centralising the whole school meal process will also save schools time and money.

And with tools like Meal Manager, schools can have a flexible and transparent meal management system that integrates with your MIS system. Managing allergies and safeguarding is our main priority, so parents can rest easy that their children’s allergy and dietary requirements will be met.

There’s a lot to learn from the findings of our School Meals Report. In the full report, you'll discover more about what parents think on meal provision, meal choice, special diets and allergies, quality and sustainability, school meal information, technology and communication, and cooking on the curriculum. We’ve also included a summary of the key findings along with some of our recommendations for how schools and caterers could improve their services for parents.

And the best part? It’s free. Just click on the link below to view the full school meal report:

Download the 2021 School Meals Report