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How times have changed: School Lunches

General Info, Schools, Time lapse February 20th 2017

How times have changed: School Lunches image 1Image credit: By U.S. Department of Agriculture (Fruit-bar-pic---Web) [CC BY 2.0 or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s weird to think that the next generation of children might grow up never knowing what a Turkey Twizzler is, or what Potato Smilies and semolina taste like. Yes, everyone remembers what they ate at school, and whether they evoke fond memories or make you shudder, school lunches were important for fuelling you for an afternoon of lessons and activities.

But what do you remember the dinner ladies serving up – starchy meat pie, veg and mashed potatoes? Or was it more along the lines of chicken nuggets, pizza, chocolate cake and pink custard? We look at how times have changed, from the classic jam and sponge puddings of the 1950s to the Jamie Oliver takeover of the 2000s.


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Children queuing for the Salvation Army’s ‘Farthing Breakfasts’ c.1900 (from the National Archives).

How times have changed: School Lunches image 3

By Jerry Pank (originally posted to Flickr as Toad in the hole) [CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

We were expecting school menus in the early 20th century to be bowls of gruel. However, in reality, the first school lunches were rather tasty – mutton stew, toad in the hole, fish and potato pie and baked raisin pudding. When World War I began in 1914, around 14 million school lunches were being served in British schools. Originally introduced in 1906 by the newly elected Liberal government amid fears regarding children’s malnutrition, school lunches were heavy, solid and full of stodge.


How times have changed: School Lunches image 4

Image credit: Simon Coombe/ Flickr

How times have changed: School Lunches image 5

Image Credit: Conrad Poirier [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1944, it was made compulsory for local authorities to provide heavily subsidised school meals, along with free school milk. Although the ‘stodge’ continued through the 20s and 30s, it seemed to get tastier in the 1940s. Enter those classic school puddings that you either loved or hated, such as semolina and treacle sponge pudding.


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Image Credit: stu_spivack/ Flickr

Meat was on the menu every day, (with fish on Fridays and a roast once a week), along with boiled potatoes and two vegetables. A hot pudding always followed (rice pudding or jam sponge and custard anyone?) School lunches were nutritious, filling and tasty… with the option to always go up for a second helping.


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Image credit: chailey/ Flickr

Lancashire hotpot, diced swede, liver and bacon, Wells pudding and custard. Oh, and jugs of water on the table. Yes, this was a time when school dinners were arguably most nutritionally well-balanced, although items such as chips and hotdogs did start appearing on the daily menus…


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The Iron Lady was already known as the ‘milk snatcher’ for stopping free school milk for all in the 1970s, but in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher took things one step further and abolished free school lunches. Gone were greens and potatoes and relatively healthy lunches. Instead, the cheapest deal won, resulting in school lunches being made up of calorific, processed foods such as chocolate cake and Potato Smilies.


How times have changed: School Lunches image 9

Image credit: rjp/ Flickr

How times have changed: School Lunches image 10

Image credit: Mikey/ Flickr

For us, the school lunches of the 90s fill us with a weird sense of nostalgia. Rectangular pizzas, ‘fruit cocktails’, those Turkey Twizzlers, chicken burgers, turkey dinosaurs, pink custard, angel delight (don’t forget the sprinkles), arctic rolls and jam roly polys. Yes, school lunches in the 1990s were deemed as drastically unhealthy, especially when compared to those in the 1950s and earlier, with much more fat and sugars, and less nutrients.

Little did anyone know that it would be 15 years before a certain celebrity chef would come to the rescue.

2005 - aka. RIP Turkey Twizzlers

How times have changed: School Lunches image 11

Image credit: By Scandic Hotels [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, we couldn’t look back at school lunches without mentioning Jamie Oliver: the man responsible for expelling junk food from the lunch menu. 2005 saw Mr Oliver launch TV’s Jamie’s School Dinners and his Feed Me Better Campaign.

Jamie tackled the UK’s school dinner system head on, arguing that it failed to provide a balanced diet and offered only highly processed foods and dangerously unhealthy items. This led the School Food Trust being set up to advise both parents and schools on how to provide healthier meals. Turkey Twizzlers were banned and the path was paved for healthier school lunches. Believe it or not though, some people still refer to Jamie Oliver as the man who forever ‘ruined’ school meals.

Present Day

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Image credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Hot dishes, beautifully garnished with fresh herbs, a salad bar with a wide selection of vegetables and even organic options: most school lunches today are virtually unrecognisable from the stodgy basics of the 1900s, and the fat and sugary-overload of the 1980s and 1990s.

School lunches have instead had a health kick with vegetables and salad every day, wholegrain foods and no more than two portions of deep-fried, battered or breadcrumb-coated food per week (although you can forget Turkey Twizzlers ever being seen on the menu again).

How do you look back on your school lunches – do they give you a warm fuzzy feeling, or more of a sickly sensation? What were your favourite dishes? Let us know in the comments below.

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