It was Jamie Oliver who first made us all look at school dinners.
For years it had become the norm for pupils to tell tales of sloppy mash, pink custard and cremated beef.
Chips were definitely a no no in both my primary and post primary school. That’s not say we didn’t have them, it just wasn’t very often and when we did it wasn’t very nice.
Those who went to lunch had equally terrible stories of luncheon meat sandwiches, yellow pack crisps and bottles of diluted juice that had to be refilled every night.
There were plenty of horror stories about school canteens.
When Jamie Oliver first brought up the idea of healthy dinners in schools, it wasn’t popular with everyone. Mums in Britain rebelled by turning up at the school gates selling pies, burgers, chips and fizzy pop to the pupils.
Schools also struggled to keep up their healthy standards while working to a tight budget.
It was with this in mind I approached a number of schools in the city asking if I could try out their school dinners.
St Mary’s College, St Cecilia’s College and St Patrick’s and St Brigid’s College were three of the schools that agreed to get involved.
I was pretty much blown away by all three of them.
Nowadays schools don’t so much have canteens, but restaurants.
Not only is there a choice - but there could be up to four or five choices of a hot meal. Most schools also have snack bar where pupils can buy sandwiches, snack, teas and coffees.
I didn’t have chips at any of the schools - perhaps they knew I was coming but most schools offer chips two days a week.
Rather than the archaic dinner ticket scheme, all three schools operate the biometric finger payment scheme.
No more having the class bully steal your dinner money or your friend passing you on her spare free meal ticket. The money is simply loaded up on an account each pupil has and payment is made using your finger.
Those on free meals have a daily allowance, if they don’t use it, it disappears at the end of the day.
St Patrick and St Brigid’s College Claudy - nice deli subs
I arrive at St. Patrick’s and St Brigid’s Claudy on a Friday lunchtime, convinced that I had struck gold.
Friday is chip day isn’t it?
Not at St Patrick’s and St Brigid’s.
Today my lunch companions are Year 8 pupils Niall McCloskey and Niamh McClintock.
The canteen is empty as we come in, we’ve missed the rush again.
There’ll be two lunch sittings today, the pupils tell me.
Before I eye up what’s on the menu Niamh’s eyes light up as she points out a delicious looking kind of pitta bread on the tray.
“That’s a deli sub,” she says. “I love them.”
I’ve never heard of such a thing so Niamh helps me out.
“It’s like a pizza in a bap,” she says.
“I look at the pepperoni sticking out of the bread and my mouth is watering. But the kids have decided that I should have the roast dinner.
I’ll be glad when I stand on the scales at Weightwatchers this week.
That’s roast ham and now roast chicken that I’ve had at two of the schools I’ve visited.
Cabbage seems to be a favourite in schools, but not the watery cabbage you might have seen in schools years ago, this is steamed cabbage.
I was quite impressed to see the two pupils not go for the burgers on the menu.
Salads are also available for the pupils, they seems pretty popular with the teachers too.
Niall orders chicken curry and rice - one of the best dinners the school offers, “he says.
“I always have chicken curry when it’s on. But I also like the snack bar because you can get soup and sandwiches and teas and coffees.
“It’s good to have a hot dinner at lunchtime. I used to take school meals at my primary school, there was a good choice there as well.”
Niamh reveals how Claudy have also embraced the fingerprint biometric system.
“If your finger print doesn’t work you have a special code that only you know to put in.”
The dessert counter has all manner of things tasty including some jelly and individual cups of fruit including fresh grapes and strawberries.
The dinner is one of the nicest I have had this week.
Afterwards Niamh directs me to the tray area where pupils must clean their own plates.
“It’s good we have to clean up after ourselves,” said Niamh. “The canteen ladies have a lot to do and they are really kind and nice.”
St Mary’s College - variety is the spice of life
It’s healthy eating week in the school and staff at the canteen have prepared a new range of salads.
They’re so popular that only minutes into service the salads have completely sold out - apparently they were a big hit with the teachers.
“We have four or five choices for our main meal,” says Ava. “or you can queue up at the snack bar.
“St Mary’s has its own restaurant called Bluebells. In my primary school our assembly hall was our canteen and we only had one or two choices.
“There is always something different on the menu - spaghetti bolognese, pasta bake, salmon, baked white cod, and stir fry vegetables.
“At the snack bar you can have sandwiches, baguettes and soup. I like to go there because it’s handy and quick.”
Today the menu is roast turkey dinner which includes turkey breast with stuffing, mashed potatoes, carrots, cabbage, roast potatoes and gravy, oriental spicy chicken and rice, chicken curry and rice, homemade pizza and homemade soup.
Ava and I are first in the queue and I opt for the oriental spicy chicken and rice while Ava goes for the roast dinner.
St Mary’s operate a kind of futuristic system where the girls pay for their meals using their forefinger, and they’re not the only school to embrace this fantastic new technique.
As we take our seats we’re joined by hoards of girls jostling for their position in the queue.
I turn my head and realise I’ve missed the dessert section which includes fruit, yogurts, fruit jelly, muffins and maple syrup with a coconut slice.
Ava promises to get me one, but by the time I’m finished my oriental chicken I’m full up.
It wasn’t half bad either, delicious in fact. A far cry from the dinners I had at school.
No chips I’m told, chips are only available twice a week, and sadly not on the day I was there.
“The restaurant is popular,” said Ava. “I’d say most the girls get their lunch here. But there is a lunch hall where you can take a packed lunch and if it’s sunny there is an area where you can sit outside.”
Drinks for the pupils are milk, water and fruit juice.
Overall you couldn’t complain about the meals at this school, they’re healthy, tasty and there’s a huge variety. Pity the canteen can’t be opened up to a few workplaces in the area, it would be a hit.
St Cecilia’s College - fingers at the ready
12 year-old Ella Kennedy and Jeannie McLaughlin don’t mind having lunch with a old one like me.
Not only do they get to be first in the queue today, they’re even at the front of the first years.
“First years get to use the canteen first,” said Jeannie. “That’s great because we don’t have to queue.
“We’ll miss that next year when we are second years.”
Ella takes charge in showing me where everything is in the canteen.
“First thing we do is get our tray, then we can get something to drink, water or juice.”
Ella announces she’s having the roast dinner after checking out the lasagne and pasta bakes choices.
“That my favourite,” she said. “You should have that too.”
I take her advice and opt for the ham, stuffing, roasties and gravy and it’s really nice although Ella thinks it’s a bit strange I don’t like gravy.
Jeannie goes for the lasagne, fruit salad and juice.
“I love that we have so many choices,” said Jeannie. “We can choose from pasta, panini, chicken curry and we have chips on a Wednesday and Friday.”
Ella said: “I like to be healthy but my favourite is chicken nuggets and chips. I’ll be having that on Friday.
“First years get to go to canteen early and the rest of the schools goes later so we get to the front.”
St Cecilia’s is one of the schools that use the biometric system - a genius way of paying for your lunch.
Each first year is fingerprinted in FBI style on the first day. The finger print is then linked to an account which they can top up using special machine dotted around the building.
“We can use the money in the canteen, shop, or to buy stationery.”
We leave as the rest of the school makes its way into the school but not before we’ve cleaned up. The girls show me to the cleaning station where every girl is asked to scrape her own plate and and dispose of her rubbish
“What happens if you don’t clean your tray, I ask them.” We’ve never tried it - they tell me!
Ella then takes me to the biometric machine where she tops up her account for the next day.
“You just place your finger on this spot and feed in the coins,” she said.
“It’s good because you don’t have to worry about losing your money.”