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Transforming Primary School Lunchtimes With Family Dining

I was recently contacted by a school leader who had found this blog post very useful when I posted it back in 2018. Here it is again on my new blog:

The second phase of our school's building work meant that we lost half of our playground. This meant that we could only safely have half the number of children playing out at any one time which was going to be a particular problem at lunchtime.

Break times were easy - we just staggered it so that only two year groups (we are two-form entry) are out at a time, with the oldest children waiting longest for their morning play. So, years 1 and 2 use the playground 10:15 - 10:30 (school starts at 8:45), years 3 and 4 have it 10:30 - 11:45 and years 5 and 6 have it for the following 15 minutes until 11am. Early years have their own outdoor space.

Lunchtimes presented more of a challenge. But our lunchtimes needed a revamp anyway - behaviour still wasn't as we wanted it, the level of waste food was high and the queuing system was inefficient. Thankfully we had a ready-made solution to hand: family dining, something which several other schools in our MAT already did. All we had to do was to make it fit for us.

Here's what we did:

Staggered dinner times

There are three half hour sittings - Reception, years 1 and 2 at 11:30, years 3 and 4 at 12:00 and years 5 and 6 at 12:30. Each sitting is followed by half an hour on the playground. Children do not leave the dinner hall until the half hour is up. Benefits of this are that children no longer rush their food so that they can get out to the playground and they eat more and appear to waste less (on the first day of doing it we went from five or six bins of waste to less than one).


Teaching staff are not required to take part in family dining however they are allowed to if they want (main course will be paid for if they do join in and sit with the children). Instead we employ a handful of lunchtime supervisors and teaching assistants and learning mentors work a full hour at lunchtime - first leading a table inside and then doing duty outside. In order to accomplish this TAs and learning mentors then have a half hour lunch break afterwards once the children are back in class. In addition to this there will be one or two members of SLT in the dinner hall who also sit at a table and lead proceedings. The fact that we have well trained staff outside who know children well and who interact and play with the children has meant that incidents of poor behaviour at lunchtime play are almost non-existent these days - no more afternoons spent dealing with behaviour issues for teachers.

Table lists

Children are assigned to a particular table with a particular adult. Children will sit in mixed-gender, mixed-year group and mixed-class groups (when children had a choice this never happened). Adults who know the children create these groupings based on many factors - this is a good opportunity to help particular children who are struggling with friendships or behaviour by grouping them with suitable children. Because of this children and adults have the chance to build and maintain relationships with the same people. Preset groups mean that transition to the hall is quick and there are no issues with who sits where. These groupings may change during the year.


One of the worst parts of the old way of doing lunchtimes was the queuing up both out on the playground to bring children in and inside the hall whilst children waited to be served. Now, once tables are ready, children collect the food (which the kitchen staff have already put in containers onto deep trays along with serving implements), take it to their tables and serve each other - members of staff may aid with this although the aim is to have the children do as much as is possible. Once everyone is served children and adults begin eating together.

Room prep

Lunchtime staff start getting the hall ready for lunch at 11am. To facilitate the quick turnaround between the hall being used for PE and the first lunchtime sitting we invested in new tables. The tables have a built-in bench, comfortably seat 12 people and fold in half in order to be stored much more compactly - we have given over a small office-sized room attached to the hall for storage purposes. Lunchtime staff also set up trolleys containing cutlery, crockery, jugs of water and a cleaning station. Once children have been greeted (usually as a whole group by the member of SLT on duty) the nominated children go and collect the things they will need to set the table from the trolleys; all children will then help to lay the table.

Meal choices

Shock horror! There is not a choice of food. There is one meal per day and everyone eats the same food. And you know what? The children eat it. We constantly review the menu and listen to the children as to what their preferences are. Of course, special diets are catered for and in our school a very high percentage of children are from Islamic communities so all the meals are halal. We have had next to no opposition to these changes from children or parents. I think the kitchen quite welcomed this change once they saw children were happy.

Packed lunches

Children are also free to bring their own lunch in - these children are still involved in family dining in that they sit on the same tables as those having school food and they too take part in serving food and setting tables. They wait until all children are served their food before tucking in - part of family dining is that everyone eats together. On each table there is a mix of children who typically have packed lunches and school lunches.


Cloths and water, brooms, dustpans and brushes and mops and mop buckets are all available for children to use to help keep the hall tidier. The improved cleanliness of the hall was immediately noticeable when we started doing family dining. After the children have eaten they clear their plates into the containers the food came in and one or two children will carry away the waste food and dirty dishes to the cleaning station where a member of kitchen staff sorts the items into various larger containers and the bin. Washing up is done by the kitchen staff, as is the final set down of tables.

PE timetabling

Four class teachers at a time are covered for PPA - part of this PPA cover is the week's recommended amount of physical education. In order to accommodate this both the hall and the playground are used on a rota; we also hire a local sports hall which children and staff walk to. Outdoor PE happens in all weathers - children know to come dressed accordingly. All of this ensures that the hall does not need to be used from 11am onwards as the two hours of PE fits in before that.

Filling the time

Quite often the half hour time slot is easily filled with the setting, serving and eating but there can sometimes be a spare five minutes left at the end before the playground is available for the group of children in the hall. This time is used for passing on messages, times of reflection, conversation (the members of staff on each table are there to encourage conversation throughout the mealtime) and appreciations (where children publicly share things they are thankful for).

All in all these arrangements make for much calmer lunchtimes that allow children to exercise their social skills and eat a good meal. I certainly would never want to go back to the old way of doing things. And the fact that Ofsted referred to our lunchtimes as 'fine dining' must mean something (we did get the report amended to say 'family dining' - we didn't want future children and parents to be disappointed that we weren't serving up Michelin-starred food)!

If you would like Aidan to work with you at your school, please visit his website at and get in touch via the contact details that can be found there.

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