School dinners and Sheffield's dinners ladies – you can’t have one without the other

As a young boy I was always hungry, I was well fed by my mum and sisters when mum was at work, but I was always hungry.

Thursday, 6th May 2021, 1:05 pm

When I started school in the 1970s I was introduced to school meals which I loved.

Sadly for me as most children, I lived within walking distance of all my schools and therefore I would mainly go home for dinner – so school dinners were a real treat, I loved ’em.

At five I started at Ellesmere Primary school, where I had school meals on the odd occasion.

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Enjoying a school meal in 1967

School dinners were served in the school hall, the same hall we received our bottles of school milk earlier in the morning, another treat which I loved.

This was before free milk was ended by Margaret Thatcher when she was Education Secretary in 1971 prompting the playground taunt “Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher”.

I remember how you could smell school dinners long before they were served. It didn’t matter what was on offer I loved them, well mostly.

However, before you got your meal you had to navigate the precarious hurdle of getting the right colour plate.

Ellesmere Nursery and First School, Maxwell Street, Sheffield, May 3, 1989

There were several colours available, blue, green, yellow and pink, as I remember.

All were acceptable apart from the pink plate, a boy getting a pink plate was the worst you could get, this would lead to taunts, such was school in those days.

I loved my food irrespective of plate colour, after wolfing down my meal, they would call out for seconds, or afters.

I would normally be near the front of the queue for them. I loved my seconds, and the sweet or pudding which were also fabulous.

I’ve often heard school diners of the ’70s described as ‘stodge’.

Luckily my school dinners were well before Jamie Oliver’s crusade for healthier food.

I would have been devastated if they’d taken my chips and stodgy puddings away.

We burned more calories than we consumed in the playground straight afterwards.

We’d play tig or kiss catch if you were lucky – I was never that lucky!

Hopscotch was always popular and hoopla which was something I couldn’t do either then or now.

Our meals were served courtesy of the dinner ladies.

These ladies were relentless. No one was allowed to leave the table until all or sufficient food was eaten, just like at home.

These dinner ladies hovered around making sure you ate your meal.

It would be difficult to describe them, without using words like strict, authoritative, or straight-laced or scary.

They were there to do a job and they certainly took no prisoners.

They’d lived through The Blitz, the war and rationing so they didn’t believe in waste.

I always complied so never really came under any scrutiny, apart from one occasion when I was forced to eat rhubarb crumble after great encouragement from the dinner lady. I still couldn’t swallow it and I’ve never forgotten it many decades later.

Irrespective of how much you loved school dinners you will always have one or two nemesis meals.

Mine were rhubarb crumble and rice pudding. When I realised these were the puddings on offer my heart always sunk.

I can eat either now, but will always be reminded back to those halcyon days of avoiding pink plates and rhubarb.