The Issue of Prison Trays and Dignity in the School Dining Hall

By - Thursday 1st August, 2013

Local school counsellor and mother of three, Tara Green reflects on what we’re teaching Croydon’s children during their lunch breaks

If you ever see a crazy woman standing at a pedestrian crossing with her children, waiting for the green man to appear before she crosses the road, even though the road is totally barren of cars, then that crazy woman could be me. Do I have too much time on my hands? Am I neurotically risk-averse? Not especially. I’m actually trying to live up to one of my guiding teaching and child rearing beliefs. That belief is that children learn from what we do, not from what we tell them to do, and that children will internalize the behaviours they see us exhibiting in our day to day lives. My daughter, when aged two and sitting in a pushchair, would not have been in any immediate danger from me stepping out into the empty road and crossing the street. If she saw me do this many times throughout her childhood, she may have been in danger ten years later when crossing the road on the way to school, and unthinkingly and unconsciously imitated my behaviour. If she had learnt to habitually step  into the road when the cars, and not she, had the right of way due to the traffic lights, then she has a greater risk of being run over.

What kind of citizens do we want Croydon to be inhabited by in the future?

We are teaching our children all of the time. Up to the age of seven, our children’s brains are biologically set to mimic the brainwave patterns that would normally be associated with being in a hypnotic trance. Because the human child has to learn so  much in those years for their development and survival, if they learnt in an active, conscious way as we adults do, then they just wouldn’t learn enough about the world around them. So from birth to the age of seven their brains don’t filter information before they add it to their knowledge banks. The information gates of their brain are wide open and passively accept whatever information comes their way. They are learning machines. They are unconsciously assimilating the data from their senses and from their observations of people around them. As adults we therefore need to be very careful of the influences that we allow to impact them and the regular, habitual ways of speaking and behaving that are exposed to from the people and the world around them.

What kind of people do we want our children to grow to be? What kind of citizens do we want Croydon to be inhabited by in the future? We need to keep this end in mind as we shape and create the norms, values, beliefs and influences that they are surrounded by as children.

Many schools use plastic prison-trays for the children to eat their school dinner from

So what brought me to these lofty and philosophical  conjectures here today? School-dinner prison trays. My apologies for bringing the lofty down to the base level, but as with the little-green-man at the road crossings, some of our children’s lessons are going to come from the oft-repeated, mundane and ordinary things that they do every day.

If you are not aware, many schools use plastic prison-trays for the children to eat their school dinner from. They have a compartment for their dinner, a compartment on the same tray for their dessert and sometimes a place to put a glass of water and their knife and fork. Dinner and pudding are served at the same time, to give a lovely opportunity for warm puddings to congeal and go cold whilst they eat their dinner, or for ice cream to melt into a creamy puddle whilst they eat the savoury course. If the main meal has gravy and the pudding has custard, there is the delightful opportunity for the two liquids to merge whilst a small child walks from the serving hatch to their seat. The children are given metal cutlery, I’m pleased to say, but for some reason, giving them a plate for their dinner and a separate bowl for their pudding is too much trouble. Instead of looking like a dining room full of children sharing a meal and the social occasion of  a good dinner together, the dining hall will resemble a prison canteen. Incidentally, if school staff choose to have a school dinner they are given a plate and a bowl to eat from.

What are the unconscious messages our children will learn from the practice of eating a two or three course meal from a slop-tray?

Is the school dinner time purely a processing system? Children come in hungry; food is selected and served in one easy manoeuvre; food is eaten from one unbreakable, easy to load in a dishwasher receptacle; aforementioned receptacle is scraped into a bin or bucket and stacked in a dishwasher tray; child leaves food-consumption area.

School dinners are nice these days. The kitchen staff I have observed chat to the children as they choose their meal, help them to decide what to have and smile as they move through the dining hall.

I want my children to gain the social benefits of a good meal enjoyed. These little niceties oil the social cogs and create the unconscious association of community, good manners and social interaction. Rushing, ‘making do’ and grabbing food on the go are a part of the lives we all lead. Plastic prison trays are an example of making-do. They may be practical, economical and logistically beneficial, but since when have these been the most important aspects of people coming together to break bread and share a meal with their community? What are the unconscious messages our children will learn from the practice of eating a two or three course meal from a slop-tray? I would like plates and bowls to reappear in our school dining halls and for the importance of treating children with this small display of dignity to be reinstated.

Tara Green

Tara Green

Tara Green is a mum of three and wife of one, parenting blogger and coach, hoping that no one will notice that she's learning the craft of raising kids whilst on the job. Specialist life coach for children and parents, providing individual sessions and group workshops. Parenting columnist for the Croydon Advertiser. Find out more at

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  • Anne Giles

    How right you are. I never had to eat like that!

  • Susan Oliver

    Excellent and brilliant observations.

    Growing up in ’70s in the US, most of the time my mother packed me a lunch. But every once in a while, there’d be something good on the cafeteria menu. Yes, we ate off those awful trays and never gave it a second thought…..but in the subsequent years I have thought about the factory-like atmosphere of the school rooms and cafeteria, the sterile playgrounds and other aspects of the school day that made the ordeal way too institutionalised.

    I have not had a lot of close contact with UK schools but from what I see, in some ways the school atmosphere less formalised over here. The British love of the garden has thankfully found its way onto most school grounds – this should be encouraged as well as a good re-think of the trays. I totally support your idea that they erode a respect for the important rituals of the day. It displays a lack of care and doesn’t properly teach children what a meal should or can be.
    Perhaps you should suggest at least one day a week or month where a school meal be approached differently, i.e. like a family meal where food is served from a common pot. Perhaps that would be a place to start.

    One thing we have to do as adults is to stick up for children’s rights and I applaud your efforts on this topic. Keep up the good work.