Christmas isn’t the only festive occasion school caterers can capitalize on, so broaden your school’s celebratory horizons and embrace them all
Living in a multi-cultural society means there are many festive occasions that school caterers can capitalise on to get pupils in the party mood. Christmas looms large in the festive calendar, but it’s important that schools pay just as much attention to other special occasions too. From Diwali and Eid al-Adha to Chinese New Year and Hanukkah – there’s always an occasion to get excited about.
Swine and dine
Tuesday 5th February marks Chinese New Year, which in 2019 is the year of the pig. Food, fireworks and dragon parades take over high streets up and down the UK with an explosion of colour, sound and taste, so it’s a great occasion to celebrate in school.
Introducing a themed menu is the best way to get celebrations under way in the week running up to Chinese New Year. Caterers can encourage children to be part of the celebrations by decorating the dining hall with their Chinese New Year pictures and adding Chinese words on the menu, allowing them to learn while they eat.
This occasion provides school caterers with an opportunity to introduce a range of new flavours to pupils in a fun way. As well as focusing on traditional Chinese fare such as stir fries and sweet and sour dishes, caterers could also add a taste of the orient to other popular dishes by offering Chinese chicken wraps or giving out fortune cookies with every meal.
Sweet and sour chicken balls with rice or noodles always go down well, especially with the younger children not to keen on heat and spice. Alternatively, sweet chilli pork skewers with a side of special fried rice is sure to appeal to older pupils. Throw some classic sides into the mix such as vegetable spring rolls and prawn crackers for a full on Chinese banquet.
Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, is one of the most popular festivals hailing from South Asia and is celebrated on 7th November. The word Diwali comes from the Sanskrit word deepavali which means rows of lighted lamps.
Celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains for a variety of reasons, the main essence of this festival is the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil. Millions of diyas, earthenware oil lamps, are lit in homes, shops and places of worship as part of the celebrations to mark the start of the Hindu New Year. Fireworks and sweets are also a major part of the celebrations, making it a popular event with children.
“It’s important to remember in the spirit of Diwali and being respectful of all living things, so meat isn’t eaten,” explains Annette Coggins, head of foodservice at Tilda UK. “This means vegetarian dishes are essential. Rice’s versatility, and its ability to absorb and take on different flavours and spices makes it a must-have for caterers gearing up for Diwali.”
From curries and naan served with rice to street food-inspired dishes such as bhajis, pakoras and samosas that can easily be eaten on-the-go, there are many authentic dishes that will prove popular with pupils during these festivities.
“Diwali offers lots of opportunities for some fantastic spicy and flavoursome dishes, as well as plenty of vegetarian options,” says Ben Bartlett, brand ambassador for Lion sauces. “Serve a vegetable curry made with chickpeas and butternut squash, or a crunchy paneer dish with chapattis and mango chutney on the side. Mongolian lamb balls in a mild chilli garlic sauce are a tasty choice for pupils who eat meat, served with a yogurt and garlic dressing to cool things down.”
Caterers can go the whole nine yards by offering traditional desserts such as kheer – a traditional Indian rice pudding. Made by boiling rice, broken wheat, tapioca, or vermicelli with milk and sugar, this popular dessert is flavoured with cardamom, raisins, saffron, cashews, pistachios or almonds. Caterers can easily adapt the traditional recipe to produce a version suitable for school children and those with special dietary requirements.
Light up the menu
Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, lasts eight days and is marked by the successive kindling of candles. This holiday which remembers the victory of the Maccabees over the larger Syrian army is celebrated with music, playing dreidel, exchanging gifts and enjoying traditional food.
This festival, celebrated in December, gives school caterers scope to offer something different to the traditional fair produced at this time of the year. The significance of lighting the eight candles in the menorah is to commemorate the miracle of light, representing how there was only enough oil at the Holy Temple for just one night, yet it remained lit for eight nights. This is why oil is a key element in the Hanukkah celebration and plays a large role in cooking the traditional foods.
“One of the most fabulous aspects of food at Hanukkah is the variety of delicious fried dishes, with oil at the heart of the commemorations,” says Bartlett. “Obviously, these are not all ideal for school menus, but there are plenty of other dishes that will work just as well. Try a Hanukkah brisket hash, made with slow-cooked brisket, potatoes, carrots and shallots, topped with a fried or baked egg. Alternatively try a cheese and potato pie, rich in energy and great for vegetarians.”
Traditional desserts enjoyed during these celebrations include decorated sugar cookies, cupcakes and Hanukkah doughnuts – all of which are easy for school caterers to produce to school food guidelines.
Although most people prefer not to think about Christmas until December, it’s essential that school cooks start their planning now to ensure smooth sailing when it comes to the big day.
Naturally, most attention goes on the traditional Christmas lunch with all the trimmings, but there are plenty of days in the run up when caterers can make the most of the season and offer dishes with a twist on the norm.
“There is a real opportunity for caterers to gently introduce seasonal specialties,” says Karen Heavey, brand manager for Kerrymaid. “In secondary schools, adding a new dish to the menu each week enables operators to keep their offering fresh and exciting, avoiding menu fatigue and encouraging secondary school students to stay on site.”
Many older pupils may not be so keen on a traditional sit down Christmas lunch so it’s essential that school catering teams put their heads together and come up with an array of festive grab and go options.
“A pulled turkey wrap with smoky barbecue sauce will make a tasty seasonal option, served with optional sweet potato wedges. Alternatively, try shredded roast turkey with chipotle mayonnaise for a Mexican twist,” says Bartlett. “That way, they’re still getting something nutritious while joining in the spirit of the season.”
Simply swapping the main protein for turkey to create street food-inspired food is a really simple way to team the theme. From hot and cold wraps to protein pots with noodles and sauce, the possibilities are endless.
“It’s not all about turkey though,” points out Cathy Amos, senior sector development and marketing manager at Brakes. “Beef and whole roasted ham is becoming more popular and can work with hot salads – ideal for eating on the hop.”
There are many opportunities in the lead up to the big day to create excitement in the lunch offering. Why not try more exotic flavours with classic Christmas favourites to shake things up a little?
“The spices of Moroccan cuisine are perfect for this time of year and creating an exotic Moroccan stuffing would make your Christmas turkey a little bit different,” says Fergus Martin, executive development chef at Major International. “Similarly, you could create pan-Asian or barbecue turkey sliders using home cooked pulled turkey which would work well as a festive street food or grab and go option. These could also be made with plant proteins like soya as a vegan or vegetarian alternative.”
Christmas flavours can also be introduced into lunch staples such as toppings for jacket potatoes. For example, offer turkey and stuffing or cheese and cranberry as alternatives to regular toppings for jackets or fillings for sandwiches.
“Incorporating Christmas flavours will allow schools to make the most of their festive products and use them in a number of ways to ensure children enjoy the flavours of Christmas, but adding variety so that the excitement isn’t lost,” says Jo Holborn, marketing and category controller at McCain Foodservice.
Few people need much of an excuse to celebrate, children even less. So, make the most of all the festivities each month brings and create menus with serious pulling power all year through.