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Thursday, 8 July 2010

Sponge squares and pink custard

I read with interest this morning that the number of schoolchildren eating school dinners has risen in recent years, a fact that can surely mean one of only two things. Either our obesely-tongued friend Jamie Oliver has convinced the nation's youngsters to adhere to a diet of lettuce and bread sticks, or turkey twizzlers, chips and beans are more prolific now than ever before.

I'm not going to pretend that I know the answer to this particular conundrum, but I do know that school dinners are a British institution; a rite of passage that all children should be forced to navigate their way through; a triumph of blandness over presentation and taste; and the only option open to children who don't wish to carry around a Tweenies lunchbox when they're 14.
Back in my day - cue Hovis-advert soundtrack - my school dinner experiences were varied. At primary school I detested the oddly-coloured slop that was slapped on our plates by the terrifying dinner ladies. Lunch became a painful chore - hurriedly consumed between more important play-time sessions of tag and British bulldog - at which the headmistress would look over us, spotting any stray peas hidden under spoons from a hundred yards and threatening to make us eat them the following day if we didn't suck them down there and then (surely violating a wealth of health and safety protocols in the process).

Pudding at primary school, meanwhile, was an almost psychedelic experience. My only memory of desert, in fact, is that of tasteless square bricks of sponge, coated in lashings of pink custard. Yes, pink custard!

At secondary school, however, school dinners took on a whole new dimension. Suddenly we had queues, trays, choice and tills. Indeed, we could choose from an array of spectacularly unhealthy foods and pay for the privilege each and every lunch time, it was the food equivalent of the summer of love. So, with my parents oblivious, I unashamedly lived off chips and beans for my entire secondary education, as did most of my friends and peers, and most of the teachers I seem to remember too.

Now I'm about to become a parent though, should Mrs B and I actually be concerned about what our little one will be consuming at school age? Of course we should, and of course we will. But should we deny them the chance to choose, should we wrap them in cotton wool (or at least wholemeal bread) and send them off to school with the Tweenies? No, absolutely not. School dinners never did me any harm in the 80s and they won't do Baby B any harm in the 21st Century. Proper education at home as to what's healthy and what's not will help, of course, but it's every child and young person's right to choose.

As for dinner tonight, where did I put that can of pink custard?

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