14/08/2014 14:30 BST | Updated 20/05/2015 10:12 BST

Free School Meals From September: How To Make Them As Palatable As Possible For Children

children eating school meals

This autumn millions of infant age school children in England will be tucking into school dinners that won't have cost their parents a penny – not a sausage.

Free school meals will be provided for all reception, year 1 and year 2 pupils from September, with similar arrangements being introduced by the Scottish Government in January 2015.

Those in Northern Ireland and Wales only qualify under certain circumstances so far – it will be up to education authorities there to decide whether to introduce an equivalent scheme in future.

Whilst school lunches have improved a fair bit since most of us were scoffing (or not) overcooked cabbage and soggy boiled potatoes back in the day, that doesn't mean they aren't without their hitches. They can be especially daunting for your child, and worrying for you, if they're a picky eater or you're concerned about your little one managing all the ordering, tray carrying and chopping alone.

Read our Q&A to find out more about the new free school meals and ways to make the experience as palatable as possible for your child.

Who will receive free school meals from now on and how will it work?

The introduction of 'universal free school meals' for infants means that all children in reception, year 1 and year 2 in England's state schools (including academies and free schools) will receive free lunches from the start of the 2014/15 academic year.

Schools will be paid funding at the rate of £2.30 a day per eligible child. The idea behind all this is that well-fed and nourished children learn and behave better and that school lunches are now monitored for healthiness in a way that packed lunches can't be.

But I'd much rather my kids had a packed lunch!

Pupils can still bring in a packed lunch if their school allows it – it's up to individual primaries to decide their policy on this. But if you do stick to lunchboxes, you'll be turning down a free lunch – that's worth almost £400 a year per child - which seems a shame. It's also a whole lot easier than shopping for, making and remembering that sarnie and other bits and pieces on a daily basis...

My son is very fussy and I can't see him eating properly if I don't just send in a meal of things he likes.

Again no-one's forcing school lunches upon him but evidence suggests that the school dinners experience actually helps reduce picky eating, even back home at the family kitchen table.
Hungry kids will end up trying new foods that they might not otherwise have had and seeing their friends enjoying a certain meal can tempt them next time too. In two pilot areas where the free school meals for all scheme was first rolled out, 23VIRTUAL-SchoolfinderWidget-left% What about special dietary requirements?

Schools are expected to make reasonable adjustments to what's on offer and vegetarian options are commonplace. If a signficant proportion of a school's pupil base are of a religion or culture with specific dietary requirements, these might well be catered for in the menu but this is done at each school's discretion.

When it comes to allergies and intolerances, school kitchens do tend to avoid nuts but it's wise to discuss any issues with the staff to see if your child's diet can be catered for.

Top tips for happy school meals:

If they're just starting school, get your child used to carrying their own plate/ tray/ drink at home and out in cafes.

Ensure they can manage cutlery and basic chopping up (staff will normally be able to help the youngest pupils with anything that's challenging to chop).

If the school publishes a menu, discuss meal choices with your son or daughter in advance, perhaps the night before (how many little reception pupils must end up picking something they don't like as they're daunted or confused about what a particular meal is and they then have to go hungry?).

If you're especially concerned about their eating habits, mention it to their teacher or TA and communicate any special dietary requirements (although be realistic about whether these can be accommodated).

Are you going to continue to give your child packed lunches? If so, why?

Do you find it patronising that there's an assumption parents can't choose healthy packed lunch options?

Are you pleased to see free school meals for all or will you be sticking with packed lunches?

More on Parentdish: Preparing your child for school