It's a brave chef who serves Quorn hotpot with no meat alternative or a three-course meal starting with leek vinaigrette to five-year-olds, but this is what is happening at two London schools. Glendower preparatory school in Kensington became vegetarian in the early 1990s, while the Ecole Andr‚ Malraux French government junior school in Hanwell serves children an authentic French meal each day. For one school the menu reflects the principles of healthy eating, while for the other it is a matter of national pride.
At Glendower, where the Brookwood Partnership has the catering contract, the decision to go vegetarian was taken by head teacher Barbara Humber following the BSE scare. "I found it difficult to accept what was being said by the Government, that beef was safe," says Humber, who has 180 pupils. "I knew it would take years to verify the facts and I felt it wasn't my decision to say whether the children should eat meat or not. I also feel vegetarian food is of better quality. You can't have 'fast' vegetarian food. It all has to be freshly prepared and cooked on-site. If done properly, it's excellent, and I'm very happy with the standard we have."
Brookwood faced several challenges when it won the contract in 1999. First, it had to get the nutritional and protein balance correct, and second, it had to produce non-meat meals for 180 girls aged five to 11, who were not necessarily vegetarians.
"It was quite a learning curve for us," admits Kate Martin, managing partner. "Originally we wanted to offer only traditional vegetarian dishes and not 'meat' dishes. But as the majority of pupils were not vegetarians we had to change this to include vegetarian sausages and non-meat versions of dishes like spaghetti bolognaise and shepherd's pie."
She and her team work closely with Humber, who personally checks all the menus to ensure they contain enough protein. Foods containing iron, zinc and vitamin B12 are vital for young people, who can end up with problems such as anaemia if they do not eat correctly. Red meat, the usual source of iron and zinc, is replaced with peas, beans and lentils. Because vitamin B12 is important in the formation of blood cells and is found only in foods of animal origin, such as meat, fish eggs and milk, Humber makes sure that milk always forms part of the menu - in custard, for example. Eggs, which also contain iron, are provided in omelettes or quiches, and cheese is used as toppings for pizzas and other dishes.
Non-meat stocks and non-gelatine jelly are used, but nuts are banned. No chips are served, and the school does not possess a fryer. Veggie burgers are perceived as junk food and not served regularly but treated as a special dish. All food is fresh, and Brookwood makes its own pizza bases and pastries such as cherry muffins and chocolate Rice Krispies cakes. Desserts are also well balanced, with two out of five per week being fruit-based.
"The girls are fairly cosmopolitan and will try things, but we have to keep it reasonably traditional and not too adventurous. Favourites include garlic bread, hotpot with Quorn, and flapjacks," says Martin, who saw the calibre of catering manager she employed as important if the company was to rise to the challenge at Glendower. "We wanted someone who was interested in vegetarian cooking and enjoyed producing food rather than just opening packets."
Catering for the 300 pupils at the André Malraux school is provided by Harrison Catering, which won the cost-plus contract with a turnover of £50,000 in 1998. The catering policy is clear: the French pupils are given adult food similar to what they would eat at home.
"There is no pandering to their tastes - even the youngest is offered a three-course meal. No chicken teddies or turkey dinosaurs here," says Stephen Eagle, Harrison's manager of client services.
Given the French passion for food, it's not unexpected that parents and the head teacher are more heavily involved in menu design and in specifying what kind of meat and bread is supplied than those in British schools. Menus are sent to parents each term, usually via the school's Web site.
"The head teacher is French and takes a real interest in everything we do. He checks the menu, where the meat comes from and that there are no preservatives in any ingredients," says Eagle. "A British teacher would care about healthy eating but wouldn't bother to check the menu or supplies."
The food costs are about 35% higher than at the average British school, one reason being that the younger children receive a "family service". This is where the food is brought to the table and served by assistants, which doubles the number of catering assistants from six to 12.
Parents are, however, prepared to pay for the food they want for their children. Costs last year rose by 10% because parents stressed they wanted yogurts without preservatives and authentic bread from a French bakery. They are in regular contact with the school and are clear about what changes they want, such as more pasta on the menu, or less fried food.
"The parents are very keen that we don't serve too many potatoes," says Eagle. "They like pasta, couscous and cracked wheat. Only very occasionally do we serve chips. Children drink water or occasionally fresh fruit juice, and no fizzy drinks."
Lunch is always a three-course affair, which includes French cheeses. The French tradition of serving bread and salad with each meal, even alongside vegetables, is also followed. Salads are varied, and include items such as beetroot, grated red cabbage and radishes. The children don't have the sweet tooth of their English counterparts and puddings generally consist of yogurt, fruit or biscuits.
The kitchen at André Malraux is small, allowing just two staff in at one time. This means the daily choice is limited to one hot meal, such as turkey escalope with mushroom sauce, plus a vegetarian option, such as tomato and basil quiche, instead of the usual two. All food is freshly prepared on-site, but French suppliers or ingredients are not necessarily used.
Despite the drive towards authenticity, the catering staff is British except for a dining supervisor liaison officer, who speaks French and English and helps to interpret. "It's a compliment that the school trusts us to do the catering," says Eagle. "We hold fortnightly meetings with the head teacher, who is very demanding. But it's a good idea to train children to eat as though they are in a restaurant, and we like the fact that parents take an interest in what the pupils eat."