Like it or lump it: how school Christmas dinner left a bad taste

CROYDON COMMENTARY: Some children’s approach to food often goes beyond a (very reasonable) disliking for sprouts, as KIRSTIE SMITH knows only too well

“It’s Christmas-time, there’s no need to be afraid…” Unless, of course, your child has allergies.

Last week, we had a letter home offering all the children at our school a Christmas lunch.


We love Christmas, we love Christmas lunch and it’s for all children (I’d read it carefully). Excellent.

When I looked at the menu, though, the two main choices – one meat and one vegetarian – both contained allergens. As for the desserts, there was no allergen information at all as it was a selection of Santa’s desserts.

So, I contacted the school and asked what our options were.

A global email came back the next day saying that, as far as the school’s Christmas lunch, it was a case of all or nothing, and if the whole meal was not suitable with regard to allergies, intolerances of cultural choices, then the affected children should come in with a packed lunch.

I got very upset.

I rang the school and, calmly, had quite a good debate over the merits of Christmas lunch being all inclusive, how it’s very difficult for a number of children to be left out and – just short of stamping my foot – saying it’s not fair. My kids want to be like their friends, and while peer-pressure isn’t always healthy, they are still very young and it’s understandable. After all, Christmas is a very exciting time.

I wasn’t really getting anywhere on the phone, but one response from the school was that the only way to make it all-inclusive was… to cancel it altogether. A roast dinner is one of the easiest meals to make allergen-free, so I felt this was very lazy. If all kids couldn’t be included, then none should.

Do we really know what is in our children’s food at their school dinners?

Call me a Grinch but it wasn’t just allergens, the dinner also contained pork sausages, so certain religious groups would also be excluded – and this is unlawful.

As well as it being unlawful to discriminate against religions, schools have a requirement to provide children in Reception and Years 1 and 2 with a hot meal under Universal Infant Free School Meals. To tell some parents to provide a packed lunch goes against this, as the Christmas lunch was the only hot option on this day.

We already had a meeting set up with the caterers about other issues, so I thought I’d bring the matter up then. In the meantime, I was still really quite annoyed and decided that one way or another my children would get their Christmas lunch at school, even if I had to deliver it myself.

I am pleased to say that the school has now said it was a “communication error”, a learning point for them, and that, of course, allergies and cultural choices will be taken into consideration. All children will be fed – unless they choose a packed lunch.

What this episode shows is that there are wider issues. It’s a tricky world now with allergies on the rise. Caterers have to be vigilant. For some, their allergies really are a matter of life and death.

As a parent of primary school children, I struggle with lack of transparency. Apparently our menus are good as they have allergens identified, but these are assigned to each meal rather than each component of the meal. When meals are dished up, components that certain children can’t have are then left off their plates.

But I’d like to know which parts the kids can have beforehand, as we discuss what they can have for lunch before they even get into school. This knowledge would also mean that when a child comes home complaining of tummy ache and tells me he had chocolate brownie for pudding, I’m not then wondering what on earth was in it and asking if he was sure he could eat it, as on the menu it’s lumped together with custard and the allergen information is for the whole dish. It’s a big responsibility for one so small.

It’s hard work – for the caterers, the school, us and the kids and I find it draining. Food shouldn’t be complicated.

We’ve been asked to trust the school and the caterers. But a couple of months ago there was a slip up where both our kids were given something they shouldn’t have had. Mistakes happen, they’ve occasionally happened at home, but the information given to us after this was so contradictory that trust has been broken and I feel a need to know what my kids are eating before they have it.

The school is a nut-free zone and the caterers also follow this policy. I wholeheartedly support this but really wish they would give the same thought to the 13 other allergens recognised under the EU Regulations. It’s not just nuts that can kill.

School is a huge part of a child’s life and they should be able to be involved in as much as possible. Until all allergens are taken seriously and parents listened to, and worked with, there will continue to be a situation where some children are not included in certain activities through no fault of their own.

ChristmasLunchGate wasn’t just about my children, but about inclusivity in general and I will continue to bang my inclusivity drum until we have an all-inclusive community and I make no apology for it.

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