School Catering: Three food focus areas for UK companies in 2024

Insights Lab heads to the canteen to isolate on-trend ingredients and formats across nursery, primary and secondary school menus, offering insight for UK contract caterers in 2024
Children eating lunch in a school canteen
Earlier this year, it was announced that state-funded London primary schools were to offer free school meals for all pupils for the 2023/24 academic year, with the plan coming into effect in September.

While touted by some as a major move by Sadiq Khan in supporting embattled families during the cost-of-living crisis, the finite nature of the plan has stoked political fires, with Labour leader Keir Starmer coming under fire in July for refusing to commit to the free meals plan if his party made it to power, stating that "money is a big factor".

School caterers are also feeling the heat in terms of finances, with a recent survey of caterers in England and Wales by LACA revealing that 77% of respondents had changed their menus because of supply issues in the last year, while almost two in five (38%) had reduced menu options because of rising food costs.

For developers and chefs within the realm of school catering, these current political and economic factors will certainly play their roles when isolating food strategies and outputs for 2024, with Insights Lab now utilising its unique trend research matrix to help contract caterers develop future proofed plans for new menu development.

This month, our trend specialists have been pouring over some of the best school menus in the UK, according to the latest Ofsted inspections, to isolate flavour, format and ingredient trends relevant to caterers looking ahead to 2024.

And, to give you a look into our thinking, here are three separate snapshots of food interest areas in nursery, primary and secondary school catering.

Nursery School Meals
Nutrition plays a central role in parents' food choices for toddlers in the UK. And schools are universally expected to follow suit with lunch options.

Starchy, carbohydrate-driven pasta, pizza, potato and rice options are commonplace, delivering much-needed energy and fibre via familiar formats, with nutrient-rich topping choices an area for 'inoffensive' innovation, if you will.

For example, we noticed a number of gentle curries and lentil dhals among some of the best Ofsted-rated school menus. Cost-effective and nutritious, these options are also almost always vegetarian - a useful trait for a weekly option.

Fish also stood out in our research. Being high in protein, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, and a range of vitamins and minerals; fish ticks myriad boxes in terms of health benefits, while also appealing to the pescatarian market.

For inspiration, look to St Stephen's (East Ham) and its Sri Lankan Fish Curry with Rice; Robert Owen Nursery (Greenwich) and its Jacket Potato with Salmon Mayonnaise from Chartwells Catering; or Woodlands Park Nursery (Haringey) and its Fish Curry with couscous and garden peas.

Primary School Meals
As primary school mealtimes cater for children aged three to eleven, menus are naturally broader, with increased allergy and dietary focus, plant-based variety, and globally-inspired nods seen across the country.

There is a greater emphasis on salads and vegetable dishes on menus, sitting alongside staple options such as mac & cheese, fish fingers, pizza and pasta.

Options such as ratatouille, curried roasted cauliflower, kung pao chickpeas, and vegetable tagine stood out as inventive dish types to gently broaden horizons, without breaking budgets, with some schools introducing lesser-known options through daily menu themes, such as 'Street food', 'African', and 'Meat-free'.

Part of our research process sees us take a snapshot of US-based school lunches for potential inspiration, with Vietnamese noodle salads, teriyaki and bulgogi marinades for both meat and meat-free options, and stuffed pupusas (soft griddle cakes from El Salvador) in particular catching the eye.
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Secondary School Meals
The older the child, the bigger portion size, with secondary school food menus dominated by the classics, from loaded jackets to fish and chips.

For children aged eleven to sixteen (or eighteen with a sixth form college), simplicity and convenience are key drivers, with flavour innovation sometimes met with caution. Choice is key here, with 'build your own' options increasingly adopted on menus.

High protein options such as chilli con carne, chicken pasta bakes, and halloumi salads remain cost-effective options for schools and caterers, with on-the-go options coming into play via sandwiches/baguettes, pasta pots, and an array of yoghurts.

The likes of Spanish omelettes, piri-piri proteins, and moderately spicy curries are points of difference for canteen-style lunch menus. Meanwhile, street food-style menus are being wholeheartedly embraced by some of the leading schools in London, with globally-inspired noodles, burgers, wings and kebabs offered - sometimes even via standalone stalls or kiosks with inventive branding.
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