The nutrition of school dinners through the decades

10th March 2023

A short history of school dinners in the UK and how their nutrition has changed over time

School meals play an important role in ensuring that children eat healthy and nutritious food.

As part of an i-Teams project postgraduate students from the University of East Anglia mentored by experienced food professional Elaine Reilly, worked with our Food Databanks team and the Food Museum to develop a concept for an exhibition combining technology and heritage to explore how school dinners and their nutrition has changed over time. Here we find out more about what they learnt about the history and nutrition of school dinners.

Children eating school dinners.

The start of school dinners

The first recorded school dinners were in Munich, Germany in 1790 by a Philanthropist, Benjamin Thompson, an American who also went on to found soup kitchens in London.

It wasn’t until 1872 that school became compulsory for children aged 5-13, following decades of campaigning. Getting young children into school was not easy in many urban and rural deprived areas where families needed the extra income from the work their children did. There was a wide range of educational provision. A hot meal was provided in Victorian ‘Ragged Schools’ which were free and targeted at the most destitute.

ln 1906 the government first got involved in school dinners with the Provision of Meals Act. It was not compulsory at this stage to provide a hot meal and many schools provided breakfast rather than lunch.

The number of school dinners rose from 3 million in 1906 to 14 million in 1914.


The 1940s was a period of rationing and food shortages throughout the UK due to the Second World War.

A typical school meal was Spam fritters, peas and potatoes followed by rice pudding.

These ingredients were both cheap and available. Fresh meat and other produce were in short supply so canned goods were favoured.

Although food options were limited due to rationing and food shortages, according to nutritionist Xander Pipe, school dinners in the 1940s were very well balanced, with vegetables, potatoes and plenty of protein for a growing child.

School meals were prepared in-house, which meant cooks could be flexible if there was an abundance of any locally grown produce.

1944 saw the National School Meals Policy introduced which required, by law, all schools to provide a nutritional and balanced school meal. It also provided free meals for those in need.


In the 1950s rationing was still around for the first half of the decade, but new food began to be introduced and fresh meat and dairy became more available. The economy was still recovering from the war so the focus was on using cheap ingredients while still providing a balanced meal.

A 1999 medical survey suggested children in the 1950s had healthier and more nutritious diets than children in the 1990s.


The 1960s saw large scale investment in school kitchens. New equipment and more training for staff improved the quality and variety of meals.

A typical meal would be meat hotpot with vegetables and potatoes, with pudding with custard for dessert.

One negative impact on nutrition is that up until the 1960s, children would have been provided with water to drink, but in the 1960s children were given squash at lunchtimes which brought unnecessary sugar into their diet.


For the first time children could bring in a packed lunch as an alternative and schools began to build dedicated canteen spaces.

Economically the UK was in trouble, endless industrial unrest meant supply chains were often disrupted. At the same time there had been a mini revolution in kitchens in terms of refrigeration with the arrival of large freezers.

This allowed schools to stock up and serve cheap, frozen food in large quantities for the first time. A typical meal of the time would be fish and chips, jelly and ice cream.

The 1970s saw a rise in processed foods high in sugar and low in nutritional value.

There was no choice of lunches, as with previous decades. There were no vegetarian or vegan options despite a large influx of different cultures during the decade.


The 1980s saw a further decline in the quality of school dinners. The government reduced spending in schools which resulted in lower standards and the withdrawal of free school meals.

In addition, free school milk had been withdrawn, all of which combined to have a huge negative impact on children’s diets.

At this time a typical school dinner would be beans instead of fresh vegetables, twirlers instead of fresh meat, frozen potato products, often fried, instead of potatoes.

Packed lunches were still unmonitored and likely to be of poor quality without the financial support of free school meals.


In the 1990s there was a continued decline in the quality and nutritional value of school dinners.

While money was invested in decorating and equipping school canteens, the nutritional quality of the meals served was completely neglected.

Vegetarian options began to be offered but often no more than cheese pizza and chips.

Desserts were often frozen options such as arctic rolls.


By the 2000s the problems of childhood obesity could no longer be ignored and a high-profile campaign by chef Jamie Oliver forced the government to make changes.

The government introduced salads and fresh fruit and reintroduced meals cooked on site in many schools. For those that did not have such facilities any longer, they began to work with outside caterers to improve the standard of meals delivered to schools.

We see for the first time nutritious alternative choices for vegetarians or vegans. Water was offered again as a drink and sugary fruit squashes were withdrawn.

Packed lunches begin to be monitored with many items now being forbidden. This caused resistance as some families were not able to afford the healthier options required in the lunchboxes.


The trend of increasing variety in school dinners continued into 2010s. More international dishes were added to the school menu to reflect the diverse society we live in.

This blog is adapted from the report “School Dinners Exhibition” a Project for i-Teams by Victoria Temitope Taiwo-Oni, Emma Thompson and Wanaemi Alison. The team involved Impact Manager Dr Rebecca Thompson, Deputy Head of Food Databanks National Capability Dr Maria Traka and Food Databanks scientist Dr Liangzi Zhang from the Quadram Institute.

The School Dinners exhibition will open at the Food Museum in 2023/24. The Museum continues to work with the Quadram Institute to develop the exhibition content.

The Food Databanks National Capability provides new and updated data and knowledge on food composition and intake. This data enables the UK to deliver nutritional policy and high-quality science and supports current and emerging national needs in nutrition, health and sustainability.

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Maria Traka