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Fresh is best for West Dunbartonshire school meals

Fresh is best for West Dunbartonshire school meals

The theme for International School Meals Day this year, taking place on Thursday 9th March, is Our changing food – methods, menus and meals. In the run up to the day itself, Food for Life Scotland will be taking the opportunity to highlight the fantastic work being done by catering teams across Scotland to serve award winning meals that are good for pupils’ health, good for the environment and good for the local economy.

Donald McInnes is Catering Manager at Clydebank High School in West Dunbartonshire. The Council has held the Food for Life Served Here award since 2021. Donald joined the council’s schools catering team around four years ago, after a 40-year career as a private sector chef. He helped bring the award standards into Clydebank High School’s school meals menu.

Photo: Donald McInnes (right) and colleagues in West Dunbartonshire receive the Food for Life Served Here Bronze award. 

Prioritising fresh ingredients

Donald and the catering team put a huge emphasis on fresh ingredients, opting for fresh vegetables over frozen wherever possible. “We’re now freshly preparing 92 per cent of our food, including sauces for pizza and pasta, which is feeding 400500 kids each day,” says Donald. “If I buy a fresh parsnip in and I roast it with olive oil, that is a far better product than your bought-in frozen.

"You can buy a pre-made roasted veg mix, but what we do is buy in sugar snap peas, baby corn, aubergines, courgettes, red onions, red peppers, yellow peppers. We marinade the veggies with garlic and a few herbs, put it onto roasting trays, and it’s getting thrown through the oven and it’s a really colourful dish going out on the hot plate, which is what we need as the kids eat with their eyes first.

“The work that’s going into a lot of the primary school menus is definitely having an impact when the Primary 7s come into S1 or S2. They’ve seen the main courses, they’ve seen the ParentPay process and how it works. So it’s an automatic transition. For most of the kids, they’ll come up and see a freshly prepared chicken and sweet potato curry, for example, and it’s not worrying them because they’ve eaten similar food at primary school.

"By sticking to the guidelines that Food for Life put in across the school network, from nurseries right up to high school in West Dunbartonshire, we know that every child is eating better quality food.”

Presenting different options

The challenge for secondary school catering teams is that there are always outside options for pupils who choose to leave school at lunchtime. But Donald’s pragmatic about it. “You’ll always get those pupils who just want chips and cheese,” he says. “That’s fine, you can’t stop that. But there’ll be other pupils who will want something different. We put food on for the cross section of people that are going to come up. Nobody knows the clientele we have in Clydebank High School better than me and my team that cook here.”

Donald’s goal is to make sure the pupils that choose to come to the dining hall have something tasty and nutritious to eat. Choice is built into the menu. As well as hot food, Clydebank High School offers a café-style cold section, with salads, sandwiches and snacks, such as yogurts and popcorn, that meet the Scottish nutritional regulations and the Food for Life Served Here Bronze award criteria. The results show in footfall, with an increase of around 10 per cent.

Taking pride in each dish

Donald says delivering fresh, local and sustainable meals in high schools starts with being proud of the food you produce. “Buy fresh, buy better quality – you’ll be surprised at the results,” says Donald. “With the cost of living crisis, more parents are suggesting to their children that they get a school meal. The big reward for me is making sure that West Dunbartonshire Council are doing the best of their ability to make sure that nutritionally we’re putting good food on the plate every single day of the week in school.

“We create a rewarding and accepting atmosphere in the canteen; welcoming the kids with a smile, and if there’s a problem, making sure the child gets food – that comes first and then we deal with the problem after. I’m a great believer that people who join Food for Life are joining for a reason because they want to better for their own schools and their own children.”

Read more about the Food for Life Served Here award in West Dunbartonshire