School Meals

This page provides advice on what the expected standards are in relation to food provided in schools in England, outlines the role of the governing body, and stipulates the legal requirements contained in legislation. 

Government Department Advice called “School Food in England” clearly explains the position with regard to the provision of food in schools.

Who does this advice apply to?

This advice is for governing boards of the following schools:

  • Maintained primary
  • Maintained secondary
  • Maintained special
  • Maintained nursery
  • Maintained boarding
  • Pupil Referral Units
  • Academies (that opened prior to 2010 and academies and free schools entering into a funding agreement from June 2014).
  • Non-maintained special schools

The School Food Standards

Section 114A School Standards and Framework Act 1998 requires that food and drink provided to pupils at schools in England complies with certain nutritional standards.

A summary of the standards is provided below but can also be accessed here.

(* This standard applies across the whole school day, including breakfasts, morning breaks, tuck shops and after school clubs).

Starchy Foods


  • All types of bread, pasta, potatoes, sweet potatoes, noodles, rice, yams, millet and cornmeal. 


  • One or more wholegrain varieties of starchy food a week.
  • One or more portions of food from this group every day.
  • Three or more different starchy foods a week.
  • Starchy food cooked in starch or oil no more than two days each week.*
  • Bread with no added fat or oil must be available a day.

Fruit and vegetables


  • Fruit of all types, whether fresh frozen or dried, fruit canned in water or juice. Fruit-based desserts containing at least 50% fruit. Vegetables of all types, whether fresh frozen or dried, vegetables canned in water or juice.


  • One or more portions of vegetables every day.
  • One or more portions of fruit every day.
  • A fruit-based desserts containing at least 50% fruit two or more times a week.
  • At least three different fruits and three different vegetables a week.

Meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein


  • Meat and fish whether fresh, frozen canned or dried, eggs, nuts, pulses and beans (other than green beans). Other non-dairy sources of protein. Any food containing meat together with starchy food, vegetables or dairy.


  • A portion of food from this group every day.
  • A portion of meat or poultry on three or more days each week.
  • Oily fish once or more every three weeks.
  • For pupils who are vegetarian, a portion of non- dairy protein on three or more days each week.
  • A meat or poultry product no more than once a week in primary schools and twice a week in secondary schools.*

Milk and dairy


  • Lower fat milk and lactose reduced milk. Cheese, yoghurt (including frozen), fromage frais and custard.


  • A portion of food from this group every day.
  • Lower fat milk must be available for drinking at least once a day during school hours.


  • Schools must provide free, fresh drinking water at all times.

The only drinks that are permitted are:

  • Plain water(still or carbonated).
  • Lower fat milk or lactose reduced milk.
  • Fruit or vegetable juice (maximum 150 ml).
  • Plain soya, rice or oat drinks enriched with calcium, plain fermented milk (e.g. yoghurt drinks).
  • Combinations of fruit or vegetable juice with plain water (still or carbonated, with no added sugar or honey).
  • Combinations of fruit juice and lower fat milk or plan yoghurt, plain soya, rice or oat drinks enriched with calcium: cocoa and lower fat milk; flavoured lower fat milk, all less that 5% added sugars or honey.
  • Tea, coffee, hot chocolate.
  • Combination drinks are limited to a portion size of 330 ml. They may contain added vitamins or minerals, and no more than 150 mls fruit or vegetable juice. Fruit or vegetable juice combination drinks must be at least 45% fruit or vegetable juice.

Foods high in fat, sugar and salt

  • No more than two portions of food that has been deep-fried, batter-coated or breadcrumb-coated each week.*
  • No more than two portions of food which include pastry each week.*
  • No snacks except nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruit with no added salt, sugar or fat.*
  • Savoury crackers or breadsticks can be served at lunch with fruit or vegetables or dairy food.
  • No confectionery, chocolate or chocolate-coated products.*
  • Desserts, cakes and biscuits are allowed at lunchtime. They must not contain any confectionery.
  • Salt must not be available to add to food after it has been cooked*
  • Any condiments must be limited to sachets or portions of no more than 10g or one teaspoon.*

What is the purpose of school food standards?

The school food standards are to ensure that food provided to pupils at school promotes good nutritional health. The standards were introduced to encourage children to develop healthy eating habits within the school day. 

As a general principle, it is important to provide a wide range of foods across the week.

Variety is key – whether it is different fruits, vegetables, grains, pulses or types of meat and fish.

Who is responsible for the provision of school food?

The schools’ governing board is responsible. Governing boards must ensure that food and drink provided at school meets the school food standards.

Governing boards are encouraged to work with the leadership of the school to develop a whole school food policy.

Is there a requirement that school lunches must be a hot meal?

There is no requirement that school lunches must be a hot meal.

The Department for Education has stated that hot lunches should be provided where possible, to ensure that children get at least one hot meal a day.

Does the school have to provide eating facilities?

Facilities to eat food at school must be provided.

Government guidance states that these facilities should include accommodation, furniture and supervision so that pupils can eat food in a safe and social environment.

Eligibility for free school meals

Section 512ZA Education Act 1996 allows a Local Education Authority to charge for school food. If they do so, they must charge every person the same price for the same quantity of the same item. 

Section 512ZB is subject to those who fall within the provision for free school meals. 

Your child will be able to get free school meals if they are in:

  • Reception 
  • Year 1
  • Year 2

Is my child eligible for free school meals from Year 3 or above?

Your child must attend a maintained school. Children attending private or independent schools will not qualify for free school meals. 

Free school meals are available to children of parents who are in receipt of:

  • Income Support;
  • Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance;
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance;
  • support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999;
  • the guaranteed element of Pension Credit;
  • Child Tax Credit (provided you’re not also entitled to Working Tax Credit and have an annual gross income of no more than £16,190);
  • Working Tax Credit run-on – paid for 4 weeks after your eligibility for Working Tax Credit ends;
  • Universal Credit.

If you are in receipt of any of these benefits, click here to assess your eligibility and apply for free school meals. 

What should I do if my circumstances change?

You should inform the school and the Local Education Authority if there is a change in your circumstances, for example:

  • if you start working and are no longer in receipt of benefits;
  • if there has been a change in your benefit;
  • if your child moves school;
  • if you change address.

Are packed lunches required to comply with school food standards?

There is no government guidance on packed school lunches. The Department for Education allows individual schools in England to decide what their policy is on food brought in from home.

To promote the health and well-being of its pupils, some schools may take a strict approach to their policy. 

If you are unaware of the school’s policy on this matter, you can request a copy of the school’s food policy from the school to clarify their position.  

Click here for healthy lunchbox tips.