Portions are small, quality is poor and menus are misleading, says one Dundee mum, after seeing her daughter’s photos of school dinners in Tayside. Nutritionist Ian Henderson says the menu relies too heavily on children’s choice but supplier Tayside Contracts says everything meets government requirements.
Her primary-aged daughter asked for packed lunches for months, saying school dinners tasted ‘disgusting’.
But our Dundee mum of three, who asked to remain anonymous to protect the identity of her children, is on benefits and was reluctant to refuse free school meals for financial reasons.
That was until she saw photos of her daughter’s meals, served to her at her Dundee primary school – the same meals given to children across the city, Angus and Perth and Kinross.
She said: “My daughter was always complaining about dinners. She said the baked potatoes were hard, mash was lumpy, gravy was watery and they just didn’t taste nice.
“I thought it was just her moaning, then she started sending me photos and I couldn’t believe how bad it looked – I didn’t think it was that bad.
“The pizza didn’t even look like pizza and one of the days her tray was covered in water.
“I felt sad and disappointed that’s what my child had been eating.”
The mum decided to give her daughter packed lunches instead, which she says will put her under financial strain.
She said: “It’s extra money, an extra cost. They say they are helping out low income families by giving free school meals but it’s not helping if the kids can’t eat them.”
She says many other parents told her they had switched to packed lunches throughout the year and believes her daughter was one of a handful of kids on school dinners.
Meals are provided to schools by Tayside Contracts, with menus provided on a four week rotation and available on their website, along with recipes.
The woman’s daughter told her that sometimes foods which were listed on the menu, such as side orders of garlic bread or vegetables and deserts, were just not available.
And she claims that portions were small. Her mum added: “She was coming home hungry.
“She needs a good meal at dinner time to give her energy to concentrate in class, not to be sitting there thinking about food.”
The mum says main meals advertised on the menu were given as described, however she thinks the quality was so poor that she branded the menus ‘misleading’.
She added: “It’s misleading because they make them sound healthy and nice but when you see them, it’s not like that.
“I make healthy food at home so at least she’s getting good food here but some parents don’t do that so it’s even more important they get a good meal at school.”
Her daughter sent her five days worth of photographs of her meals (pictured below), in May and June, before the woman was convinced to switch to packed lunches.
The Scottish Government recommends meals in schools should each contain no less than 19.4g of protein, two portions of vegetables and one portion of fruit.
The government classes 40g of fruit or veg as a portion for primary aged children – roughly the weight of one medium boiled egg.
Nutritionist Ian Henderson, a former chef of 20 years, says overall the menus appear to meet recommendations, by offering sides and salad, oily fish once a week and adhering to desert, sugar and salt limits.
However Ian, who now runs his own health and nutrition firm, Knives and Plates, based in Edinburgh, says there is room for improvement.
He said: “There is a bit of a theme across the whole menu, in that kids eating two portions of veg and one of fruit relies heavily on their decision to take sides or salad.
“There are several dishes which fall just short of one portion of vegetables and by modifying the (batch) recipe to add just 50g more, they could get one full portion in their main meal.”
Ian highlighted that some dishes are high in vegetable content, like the veggie burrito, while others have low or no vegetable content such as pizza and macaroni cheese.
He added: “It’s disappointing that the veggie burrito, which is a nutrition-dense dish, is up against chicken nuggets on the same day, we know those are appealing to kids.
“On one of the days they have pizza and mac and cheese. Both are appealing to youngsters but if they don’t chose to take a side of veg or go to the salad bar they could end up with no veg content on their plate.”
And this was one of the issues our Dundee mum discovered when her daughter sent her photos of her meals.
Day 1: Pizza with mashed potatoes
Pizza is made from scratch, using a packaged dough mix. Total vegetable content within the pizza per portion (one slice) is just 12.1g, contained within the sauce.
Dundee mum said: “I didn’t know what this was and had to ask her. I was shocked when she said it was pizza and why have they served it with mash, that doesn’t even go.”
Ian, who works with restaurants to analyse the composition of their menus, said: “That doesn’t look great.
“The pizza looks like mostly cheese and the whole thing is beige. There could be a lot more colour in there, some veg on the pizza to up the nutrition.
“And some sweet potato wedges or sweetcorn to at least get one portion of vegetables, instead of just a ball of mash.”
Day 2: Chicken fajita wrap
Recipe details for this dish were not available on Tayside Contracts website, where all other recipes are available to the public, at the time of publication.
The supplier said this was a “clerical error” and will be resolved.
Mum said: “My daughter said this was disgusting but it doesn’t look bad though. She says it’s the inside that was horrible.”
Ian said: “It’s hard to make any comment on that without being able to see inside but at least there’s an apple.
“The children might have had it before and know it’s tasty.”
Day 3: Roast chicken, without gravy
Instructions for cooking this dish, as issued to Tayside Contracts’ staff and available online, are: oven cook chicken fillet from frozen, pour off excess liquid (if any), cover with gravy.
Dundee mum said: “She said she didn’t want gravy because it was slimy and didn’t bother with carrots because they were so watery they would make her sick.
“I don’t know why it’s so watery, maybe from the potatoes? She said the potatoes had black bits on them.
“I think this one looks absolutely disgusting. It’s just shocking.”
Ian, who worked as a chef in restaurants across Edinburgh, said: “Why is there water all over the plate? That shouldn’t happen.
“It shouldn’t be an issue to resolve, if it’s just a case of draining water from the potatoes that can be easily be resolved.
“The chicken looks an odd colour, it doesn’t look very appealing overall.
“Presentation is important because if it doesn’t look appealing or the veg looks bad, then children could chose not to take it and miss out on nutrition.”
Day 4: BBQ Chicken
This main meal contains 70g of vegetable content in the sauce per portion, when the recipe contents are divided into 10 servings, as stipulated.
The recipe also contains nearly 3g of added sugar per portion – which includes 3.5g of treacle with a 60% sugar rate and an additional 0.5g of caster sugar.
Government recommendations set a limit of a maximum 10.4g of ‘free sugar’ per portion. Free sugar includes naturally occurring sugars in fruit, vegetables, milk and juice.
Mum said: “My daughter said this was one of the good ones. I asked what the white dot in the middle was and she said it was a small potato.”
Ian said: “It’s a bit of a sad looking dish, but it’s not a disaster. We have to remember this is a school, it’s not a restaurant.
“I have to trust that is exactly 1/10 of the recipe for the sauce, meaning there is a portion of veg in it and they’ve got the green beans which looks around about a portion.
“Maybe they’re playing it a bit safe because they know what kids like but I think this one is OK.”
Day 5: Steak Pie
The steak pie, including the puff pasty as served according to the menu, has 18.2g of protein, which falls short of the government recommendations of at least 19.4g of protein per meal.
And with 40g vegetable content, it contains one vegetable portion but would therefor rely on children opting to take sides to reach two portions.
Mum said: “She asked for vegetables and was told there wasn’t any because it’s in there. There was no dessert that day either, they only get desserts on some days.”
Recommendations only allow a maximum of three deserts per week, however on both days steak pie appears on the menu, it is alongside a gingerbread muffin or shortbread, both with fruit.
And the menu lists broccoli and cauliflower or mixed vegetables as sides.
With the full 12.7cm square of pasty, as per recipe instructions, this main meal would contain 7.98g of saturated fat, above the recommended 6.3g limit.
Ian said: “Interestingly, the menu says a 12.7cm square of puff pasty, which I had considered might take them over the recommended saturated fat levels when you add in the fat in the mince.
“But that looks like they are getting half a 12.7cm square so that could take it to within recommended amounts.”
Tayside Contracts clarified that the correct portion size is the triangle (half 12.7cm square, as pictured), despite the error on the recipe.
A spokeswoman for the company said: “The full week’s menu is required to meet nutritional targets set by the Scottish Government.
“In line with this, our school menus are analysed across the week by food and nutrition professionals and all four-week menu cycles comply.”
The firm’s spokeswoman continued: “Tayside Contracts delivers over six million meals per year across Tayside and we aspire to ensure that each and every one of those meals is healthy, nutritious and tasty.
“Feedback from customers, whether complimentary or otherwise, is essential to enable us to achieve this objective and continue our journey of continuous improvement.
“Whilst one disappointed customer is one disappointed customer too many, it is worth noting that this is the view of a single pupil and their parent, whereas our customer surveys invariably show a very high level of customer satisfaction.”
She clarified there should “always” be accompanying vegetables available, as per the menu, stating the firm will look to resolve any issues at school level, along with any quality issues.
She continued: “There should be available each day a two-course meal (including accompaniments – carbohydrates, vegetables), fruit and unlimited salad and bread which is in line with the Eatwell Guide.
“There is no intention to mislead in any way, the dishes on the menu are so named to accurately convey the components.
“Whether or not they are ‘nice’ is, of course, subjective. However, they are certainly ‘healthy’ as all Tayside Contracts school meals fully comply with government requirements.”
She added that portion sizes are being reviewed, with a view to offer a two-tier portion size for the upper and lower school.
In response to Ian’s suggestion to increase vegetable content within batch recipes, the spokeswoman said: “To achieve consistent messaging with the Curriculum for Excellence Health and Wellbeing in schools, we don’t ‘hide’ fruit and vegetables in foods.
“Instead we support healthier choice-making in later life by encouraging young people to choose to eat fresh produce and to know what they are eating.
“Not all dishes lend themselves to the inclusion of vegetables within the dish itself, for example macaroni cheese, however, where this isn’t possible vegetables are always made available as an accompaniment.”