Top 10 tips for... Sociable lunch-times

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

We all know how important eating together is – sitting around a table and having opportunity to chat is a valuable social experience. As part of our top 10 tips series, Suzanne O’Connell considers making lunch-times socialable, calm, and harmonious

1, Organisational factors

Your physical environment, multi-use of rooms and buildings, number of children, and the logistics of getting them through lunch-time will dictate much of what you do. However, do check that there aren’t other options available to you that might bring benefits.

“We’ve always done it this way” is no rationale for the choices you make and although it can be difficult to instigate change, it can be worth it in the long run. Ask yourself and your staff:

  • Are your lunchbox children kept separate from your school dinners children and does it have to be this way?
  • Is everyone organised according to year groups, or could you manage some “family” tables with children sitting in houses or otherwise arranged?
  • Could you introduce a seating plan so that pupils are not just focused on being in and out as quickly as possible and know who they are sitting with each day?
  • Would lunch-time be more manageable if it was staggered?

During Covid schools operated lunch-times where eating took place in class groups and “bubbles” rather than in the dining room. Some schools have continued to use this system, finding it an easier way of delivering a calmer lunch.

Others simply have found it unmanageable once all their pupils were back in school. Reflect on the way you organised lunches in groups and consider whether some of this practice could still be beneficially applied.

2, Special family and theme days

Why not invite members of your local community to eat with you on occasions? They can pay for their dinners, or your PTA might like to sponsor some events – for example if you decide to have a grandparents’ dinner. Planning an annual cycle of themes can build interest into the lunch routine.

3, Music

The dining hall doesn’t just have to be full of the sound of clattering cutlery and scraping plates. Background music can be just background, but it can also be beneficial to build it into classroom discussions: What should the choices be? Do they recognise the music? What instruments can they hear? What type of music is it?

4, The top table

You might not be able to equip all of your dining hall with bone china, flowers and tablecloths but why not create a top table that children access in turn that includes all the trappings of a prestigious dining event? Some children will never have experienced a sit-down dinner with all the formalities – it is a great opportunity for discussions about place settings, cutlery, and which side your bread should go on!

5, Training and support

Midday supervisors are your bastions of the lunch hour and need recognising as such. Plan their training and development and integration into your school staffroom with care and attention. They are the best people to ask about improvements to lunch-time and should be given the same consideration when it comes to training and development. Give them access to their own budget and invite them to annual parties and recognition events.

6, Pupil involvement

Consider giving more responsibility to some of your older pupils. They can help with wiping tables, stacking chairs, and sweeping. Outside in the playground they can be sports leaders, handing out equipment, and teaching others to use it. The more involvement you have at this level the more your lunch-time staff should be able to focus on chatting to your pupils, encouraging them to make more interesting menu choices, and jollying along those who would rather be somewhere else.

7, Managing behaviour

Whatever your reward systems, sanction systems and school values, make sure that the beginning of lunch-time isn’t when they are left at the canteen door. Your midday supervisors should have in their armoury all the strategies your teaching staff do. Emphasise rewards and a positive approach and give lunch-time staff the equipment to implement this.

8, Wet lunch-times

The dreaded time when suddenly the staffroom is full of teachers trying to preserve their sanity. There’s no foolproof answer but resources are a good way of reducing incidents. Like wet playtime – board games, book bags, packs of cards and other activities can help your pupils resist cabin fever.

Some schools now take the approach that outside is better whatever the weather and encourage pupils to bring wet playtime clothes so that they can still have some time outside.

9, On the menu

Of course, what is on offer is the most important part of your lunch-time. Here you will be limited by your school meals provider. However, you are still the customer and although you might not have Jamie Oliver as an alternative you should be able to negotiate some improvements and changes if the feedback from your pupils is not as good as it should be.

10, A lunch-time charter

Yes, the school rules apply in the dining room but there are also other rules and guidance that you need for this unique part of the day. Consider establishing a charter for lunch-times that pupils and midday staff have ownership of. What behaviour do you want modelled in the dining room? This can be a reminder for staff as well as students. You can link the school’s values to your charter to show how they work together.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

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