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Largest study finds nearly 90% of children are eating a school meal every day

Nearly 90% of children are eating a school meal every day, according to a new survey of parents in England (@ParentPay)

One of the largest studies ever undertaken on the subject reveals the popularity of school meals and the extent of the cashless revolution in education.

A new ground-breaking survey of almost 140,000 parents conducted by ParentPay, the UK’s largest edtech and provider of cashless payments for schools, in partnership with LACA – The School Food People – has shown that nearly 90% of children who choose a school meal are eating a school meal every day.  97.7% of parents, meanwhile, believe that cooking should be on the school curriculum.

The survey of ParentPay users revealed strong agreement with the conclusions of the National Food Strategy and the School Food Plan, which state that schools should “instill a love of cooking in pupils”, while teaching them the kitchen skills necessary “to feed themselves and others affordably and well, now and in later life”.

The continued growth of cashless payments in schools was also revealed by the survey, with 82% of parents reporting that their school no longer accepts physical currency for school meals or activities. What’s more, almost 99% of parents plan to pay for school-related costs online post pandemic.

Notably, the survey found:

  • The vast majority of parents surveyed said that their children are eating school lunches. 88.8% of primary school children are choosing a school meal at least one day a week; this increases in secondary school with 91.8% of children opting for a school lunch at least once a week.
  • 87.9% of pupils choosing a school meal are eating one every day of the week.
  • 80% of parents feel that school meals are priced correctly.
  • Key initiatives such as ‘Eat and Learn’ outlined in the recommendations of the National Food Strategy report should be prioritised and would be well received by parents.

When asked what factors would make parents more likely to choose school meals more frequently or to switch from packed lunches to school meals, respondents stated they would like to see more options for pupils to be able to choose their meals, more variation on hot and cold options and lower costs for hot school meals.

Sustainability is also important to parents and carers: almost 30% of parents responding said that sustainability and ethical sourcing of ingredients is a factor they consider when choosing to select school meals. Allergen management is also key: the survey found that 6.8% of respondents reported that they have a child with at least one food allergy. The top 5 allergies were peanuts (1.8%), milk (1.6%), eggs (0.9%), nuts (0.54%) and fish (0.53%).

While vast strides have been made in improving school meals, some topics raised by parents shows there is more work to be done by schools in terms of communicating on key issues that include:

    • Allergen management
    • Special dietary options
    • Nutritional information – 25% of parents highlighted this as an area they would like to hear more about from their schools
    • Sustainable sourcing and its impacts
    • Healthy and nutritious menu choices
    • Clear visibility on the week’s menu options
    • The ability to order meals in advance.

Following the survey, LACA and ParentPay recommend the following for caterers and schools:

  1. Teachers and senior leadership teams need to engage with caterers for a whole school approach (including parents and pupils) to promote the benefits of healthy choices.
  2. Develop wrap-around provisions, providing meals or snacks during breakfast and at after-school clubs.
  3. Engage with parents and pupils to provide relevant tools and information that reassure parents, including special diets and allergens.
  4. Invest in technology that will improve parent and pupil experience of school meals. Taking meal management online and reducing paper processes also saves schools and caterers time and money.
  5. Support the recommendation to enable cooking and food education on the school curriculum.
  6. Communicate to parents and children the importance of food sourcing and sustainability, particularly the impact this can have on health and the environment.

Commenting on the survey’s findings, Chair of LACA Jacquie Blake said:  

“This ground-breaking survey demonstrates the value that parents and carers place on their children’s school meal. Almost 90% of children who choose a school meal are eating one every day, highlighting the impressive strides our industry has taken over the last few years to make school meals appealing to children and their parents. We agree with parents’ views that cooking should be on the school curriculum so that children are provided with the skills they need to cook healthy, nutritious meals for themselves and others later in life. LACA hope that caterers and schools agree with our recommendations, and we would like to offer our support to members in helping make parents’ and children’s vision for school food a reality.”

Head of Sales at Cypad (part of ParentPay Group) Merica Wilsher said:

“We are delighted with the response and enthusiasm from parents for this survey – demonstrating how engaged parents across the UK are in their children’s school mealtimes. The fact that the results show a quarter of parents feel that allergies aren’t managed correctly highlights the ongoing need for accurate and efficient digital allergy management, especially in the wake of Natasha’s Law. It’s great to know that Cypad and ParentPay offer services that give parents the confidence in their child’s school meal provision, and this survey gives us a base to build on in the future to track the changing views of school meals from parents.”

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