Healthy school meals begin, but cooking classes optional

Children returning to school today after the summer holiday will be offered a range of healthier menus free from sugary, fried and fatty foods.

Guidelines from the Department of Education, published earlier this year, banned meals containing high amounts of salt and fat.

Instead, pupils will get a minimum of two portions of fruit and vegetables with every meal, while "high-quality" meat, poultry and oily fish is set to feature more in school dinners.

A typical day's menu for primary school pupils might include a choice of chicken and broccoli lasagne or vegetable risotto as a main course, with baguettes, roast potatoes or spaghetti as starchy side orders.

Vegetables and salad items, such as cherry tomatoes, coleslaw and carrots will be served, rounded off by a desert such as fruit salad or oat cookies.

Older secondary pupils will be able to feast on pork calypso or lentil and tomato quiche, with pasta twirls or jacket wedges on offer as an accompaniment.

The day's menu would also a selection of vegetables such as include baked beans, peas and mixed salads, while a choice of breads such as bagels and wraps would be available. As well as deserts such as rice pudding and apple and blackberry crumble, pupils can finish their meal with fresh fruits and yoghurts.

A stable of popular options, such as lamb or quorn burgers, chicken fajitas and tortillas, would also be available every day.

Secondary school pupils will also be given the option of hands-on lessons in cookery as part of the drive to encourage youngsters to eat healthier foods, which it is hoped will help improve behaviour and concentration levels.

The move will see schools providing courses of 24 hour-long lessons for 11 to 16-year-olds.

At present, students can be taught limited food skills as part of their Design and Technology (D&T) curriculum, but the lessons are usually theoretical and often revolve around health and safety.

It will not be compulsory for pupils to take the new courses, but from 2008 all schools will be obliged to offer them, even though they will not count towards a formal qualification.

In October last year, the school meals review panel - a group of expert advisers set up by ministers - said "cooking is an essential life skill and no child should leave school unable to cook for themselves". The panel added: "All children should be taught food preparation and practical cooking skills in school in the context of healthy eating."

The new package of measures also includes £240 million earmarked by the Government to subsidise the use of healthy ingredients in schools until 2011. The recommendations follow a high-profile campaign by Jamie Oliver, the celebrity chef, to improve the quality of school meals.

A spokesman for the DfES said: "We want to see a resurgence in the art of cookery. All kids will now get the chance to learn hands-on cookery.

"Schools could have it as part of their D&T over the course of an academic year, or it could be done as an after-school club," the spokesman said.

"When kids have completed the 24 lessons they will receive a 'licence to cook’ certificate. But what they will really have is life skills that will stand them in good stead for the future."