There are so many people to please, all of whom have a plethora of differing opinions of what your service should provide. And most of whom will never set foot in your canteen.
Some parents have a nostalgic view of the school canteen. Finger buns, flavoured milk and packets of chips were commonplace 20 years ago, when a canteen order was a real treat and kids had a more balanced diet at home. Some think vegan or vegetarian is the only way to go, whilst others favour a low carb, high fat approach. Throw in cultural and food sensitivities, as well as allergies and government guidelines, and it may seem like an impossible task to create a successful canteen that not only feeds a diverse group of kids, but pleases their parents, teachers and principals too.
The fact is, there's no point having the best of intentions or the most amazing menu if the kids won't buy and eat what's on offer, right? So you need to communicate and trial recipes and menu ideas with the kids at your school. Utilise the SRC and make an event of trialling new things. Taste testing, having recipe competitions and generally involving your school community, especially the students, will help to make your canteen a success.
A very real fact is these days many kids rely on the school canteen to feed them throughout the school year, every day. This is not a bad thing, unless what is on offer is not beneficial to the child, their classmates and their teachers. If you can provide a nutritionally balanced and diverse menu that caters to all of the families at your school, and at the same time be financially prudent - purchasing ingredients in bulk that can work across several recipes for example - you can run a successful canteen. It is your job (sometimes a thankless one) to offer options that suit all of the stakeholders at your school; the principal, the teachers, the parents and the students, and to know that you are providing a much-needed service that makes the lives of all of the stakeholders easier.
Ask any teacher about their classroom experience after recess. Small bodies respond to the nutrients, chemicals and stimulants in the food they consume more than your average adult, simply because of their size. Being aware of this can help you make better decisions when it comes to your menu. Concentration and focus is vital to enhance not only the learning experience of the child eating the food, but to the other children in the classroom. If you can, as a school canteen, provide quality meals and snacks that keep your students focused and energised until their next break, you have done a great job. Protein and good fats are the key, as well as complex carbohydrates.
Ultimately the school principal has the final word and accountability when it comes to what is served at your canteen if you work in the public system, but most school principals don't have time to prioritise the tuckshop so it's often handed over to the P&C to manage, either through getting school parents to volunteer or outsourcing to a third party. Keeping it in-house can be difficult. Getting volunteers from a parent group that are increasingly working longer hours or are already stretched to capacity in other areas of their lives is one of the biggest challenges facing P&C-run canteens. There are ways to manage this but they take a committed and determined manager prepared to spend some time getting processes in place.
If you are lucky enough to have a great school community full of volunteers or at least blessed with a small group of committed volunteers, you can be sure that you can find parents who have an interest in making your canteen a success. Success doesn't have to include a profit. They can simply break even. That way the costs to the students can remain minimal while the quality can still be high.
Many canteens rely heavily on processed and packaged foods as they are cheap and have a high profit margin, but it's easy to include inexpensive fresh fruit and vegetables, presented in an appealing way to your menu, and this is without even starting to build a repertoire of made from scratch menu items guaranteed to please.
School canteen can be a saving grace for busy parents. They can also offer a guilt-free relief for families who rely on them for every day, when you provide a whole, nutritious and delicious menu that you can guarantee suits a diverse school community and can trust the kids to order on their own without too much supervision. And at the end of the day, allowing and trusting our kids to make good food decision for themselves is a great outcome.