How to create a calmer dining hall in your school

Written by: Jenny Mosley | Published:
Photo: How to Create Calm Dining Halls

Lunchtime can often be one of the louder parts of the school day. Author of a new book on calm dining halls, Jenny Mosley, offers her advice on achieving the perfect lunchtime atmosphere

As I travel around schools, I see evidence of innovative practice in many areas – but in the majority of schools the noisiest, messiest, least happy place is the dining hall.

Common sense tells us we need calm children and staff at lunchtime and research reinforces this. The School Food Trust (2010) – now the Children’s Food Trust – reported that “primary school pupils were more alert and over three times more likely to be ‘on-task’ working ... following an intervention to improve the dining environment and the nutritional quality of the food served”.

Brooks (2013) re-iterated our core belief that only by giving attention to the whole child including physical and mental wellbeing can we release their full potential. It is timely therefore that Ofsted has now stated their intention to include the dining hall in their observations.

Below are some key tried and tested ideas that I have initiated in many schools – but all need to be subjected to the rigor of a series of meetings using the Plan, Do and Review model, which takes stamina and energy. So please headteachers, get all the systems going in your dining hall so that you can take some time out for yourself to sit down and enjoy a calm lunch.

A whole-school approach to positive lunchtimes

Everything works better in schools when we all get involved so start by surveying and engaging everyone – the leadership team, teachers, catering staff, midday supervisors, governors, parents/carers, and children about what is working well and what isn’t.

Simple questionnaires with trigger questions to complete are an easy way of gathering information, as are class circle times for canvassing children’s opinions. Summarise the evidence to get a clear picture of where improvements are first needed – and then plan a series of meetings. It is wise to find some money to pay midday supervisors to attend some meetings (if teaching assistants are also supervisors then this will be easier for you). Set up a working party and include the school council children too.

Clear shared guidelines for the dining hall

When schools ask me to focus on behaviour in the dining hall I am often surprised that when I visit I can’t see the rules up anywhere. All children need clear behavioural expectations, especially those who are “hot with chaos”.

The rules need to be drawn together from everyone and displayed in words and pictures, talked about in circle time and embedded through assemblies into the culture of the school. Assemblies can be held before or after lunch so that you can invite the supervisors and hopefully some catering staff. Children need to look up and see you all, including the teachers, standing together and think “I can’t play one off against the other – they are all in agreement”.

Once the guidelines are up you can create a positive focus for the week that can be displayed in a big old golden frame.

We have found the following words particularly motivational to children: “Thank you for lining up calmly. Thank you for trying new food. Thank you for keeping your tables and the space under your table clean. Thank you for using good table manners. Thank you for cleaning your plate tidily. Thank you for finishing your lunch today.”

Go Golden

To boost the behaviours that you want it is helpful to introduce the idea of Golden Raffle Tickets. Books of tickets are given to all lunchtime staff including caterers. Whichever behaviour in the dining hall is worrying people the most, e.g. food on or under the table, needs to become your behavioural “target of the week” to be displayed in the gold frame (e.g. thank you for keeping your table clean on top and underneath).

Tickets are given out every time the good behaviour is spotted with the words “Good choice, thank you for...”

Children take their raffle ticket back to class where all the teachers have a “Jar Of Good Choices” and, for every raffle ticket, they pop in a golden marble. Once the jar is full (nearly every day – small jar, big marbles) the whole class can have a two-minute treat of a fun lunchtime game. Children are highly motivated by fun and it can prove to be one of the best rewards ever.

The Golden Table

On a Friday create a beautiful Golden Table of the Week, complete with golden table cloth, napkins, place mats, sparkly water, dried flowers and silver cutlery. One headteacher in Swansea even has golden candelabra (see photograph, above).
The catering staff and supervisors can nominate children who have made progress and those who always choose good behaviour to sit at the Golden Table.

What makes it fabulous is that they are also given an invitation so they can invite an adult to come with them. There is nothing more motivational for the rest of the dining hall than to observe adults and children talking together calmly and enjoying each other’s company and the food. It is an image some children do not have in their own homes.

Review all your systems

It takes time but every system needs to be reviewed. Most dining halls are far too noisy and it puts children off eating. Some children just want to get outside and when the supervisor’s back is turned they drop their food on the floor and scarper.

Some queues are far too long. Some children get put off food because the first thing they see when they come in is the big messy dustbin for scraping plates into. This article is not the place to go through each system but I can give some simple suggestions.


When we consulted children they came up with a great idea. They wanted a thin painted line going up the wall. From the floor to the next level it was painted green which means the noise is acceptable. Up until the next level it was orange – which means it’s getting too loud. The next level was red. At that level was a shelf with a big chunky one minute sand timer on.

A flag beside the painted line meant that the lunchtime supervisor could pull up the flag (or lower it), but if it hit the red then the whole hall stands in complete silence for the one minute timer (even the catering staff stop serving food).

To alert everyone to the one minute silence it is important that staff use the hands up approach to silence (in some schools a cacophony of whistles, tambourines and children clapping back to the midday supervisor’s inaugural clap while talking – creates chaos).

For this system, the adult puts their hand up and any other adults in the hall put their hand up too and walk swiftly to any talking children, tap them on the shoulder and point to the adult who has their hand up, but they mustn’t talk, just point.

Children know that if they spot an adult with their hand up, they must stop chatting and tap any other chatting children on the shoulder and point to that adult. The adult waits until everyone is quiet and, with their hand up and looking at them, puts their hand down and speaks to everyone. (Sometimes their hand is up because they have a Golden Raffle Ticket in it and they are thrilled with a good behavioural choice. This works!)

Dining Hall Helpers

If I had to choose one system that can immediately help towards creating calm dining halls – it would be the system of recruiting children as dining hall helpers. All children really want is to be helpful, noticed and consulted. It quickly builds self-esteem.

You need application forms and proper interviews. If children get the job they have dining hall helper aprons, nets and skull caps. The range of jobs they can do is fabulous.

I think it is really important that children drink water at lunchtime so the helpers can ensure that every child has a beaker and let midday supervisors know if their water has not been drunk. They can serve the salad and take the bread basket around if children have finished their main meals.

They can supervise the scraping of the plates and help younger diners cut up food, with table manners and a gentle encouraging chat – the list is endless.

Cause for Concern Handover Book

We need to be sure that we are monitoring children’s eating habits at lunchtime. Some children hardly eat anything. Some children are not being given the right food in their lunchboxes. Some children never drink water. Some children are frightened of food. There is a long list.

Midday supervisors have a lot of information about children – in your school who do they pass this information on to? Some schools have a senior midday supervisor, given time at the end of lunch to nip round to the teachers to give them the information. Parents need to know. But some schools have no systems for when lunchtime staff are worried about the children.

Therefore you may want to set up a cause for concern booklet in which any adult can jot down worries they have about a child and their food. You can see if patterns develop and whether the teacher needs to take it further.


The main thing about the dining hall is that it is one of the most important social experiences that we can help children with. The whole staff needs to get excited – maybe even having role-plays where children and their teachers act out good restaurants with menus and posh cutlery. It is a whole-school initiative – and everyone needs to be a part of it. 

Jenny Mosley has, over the past 30 years, developed her school and classroom management models based upon a background of teaching experience and research. She is the author of How to Create Calm Dining Halls and she holds regular open training days throughout the UK. Visit

Calm dining halls

How to Create Calm Dining Halls by Jenny Mosley is available from


  • Life stage: School Years, Brooks, 2013 (chapter 7 in Chief Medical Officer’s Annual Report 2012, Our Children Deserve Better: Prevention pays, Department of Health).
  • School Lunch and Learning Behaviour in Primary Schools: An intervention study (School Food Trust, 2010):

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