There has certainly been a transformation in the dining halls of independent girls’ schools across the land since the days of gristle pie and wobbly tapioca. At St Mary’s Colchester, an independent school for girls aged three to 16, set on two beautiful campuses on the edge of Britain’s oldest recorded town, lunchtimes are seen as a lesson in good manners as much as an education for the palette.

From the tiniest child in the school’s Kindergarten to the tallest Year 11, students at St Mary’s sit down at the table together when the lunch bell rings. Tables of younger pupils are supervised by their own form teacher, while prefects take on the duty for the seniors and the food is delivered in large dishes, with the expectation that everyone will help themselves fairly.

‘Lunch here is a happy, social occasion,’ explains Hilary Vipond, the school’s principal. ‘We have high expectations of our students’ general behaviour and lunchtime is no exception!’

Certainly in the dining rooms of both the lower and senior schools at St Mary’s there is a hum of civilised conversation, punctuated only by the occasional spontaneous rendition of “Happy Birthday”. Senior school students have lunch with whoever they like and often choose to mix with girls from other year groups – vertical integration – in a “family dining” setting.

There is no choice of main meal though. The school employs a professional catering team from the national firm, Holroyd Howe, who cook from scratch in the school’s own kitchens – one on each campus.

“Unlike schools that work on a rotation of weekly menus, we are always trying out new dishes,” says catering manager Laura Read. ‘It’s important to make sure that the students are introduced to a variety of foods and sometimes perhaps taste a dish that they wouldn’t normally have at home.”

Crowd-pleasers, such as hunter’s chicken, Thai curry and honey-glazed sausages, crop up regularly, but more exotic dishes are served up to tie in with national and international days, including the very popular quesadillas to mark Cinco de Mayo and pork in plum sauce at Chinese New Year.

"We know that food needs to look attractive to tempt students, particularly teenage girls."

There’s a vegetarian option every day and students with dietary needs are well catered for – the parents of every child who joins the school are asked to fill in a lengthy questionnaire on intolerances and special requirements and the catering team will often telephone for a more detailed discussion.

As an alternative to the hot meals, a salad bar offers sophisticated combinations of bright leaves, raw vegetables, pulses and legumes of restaurant quality, as well as protein in the form of cold meats and fish, quiches, and often a cheese board. Homemade breads and mini sandwiches complete the spread.

“We know that food needs to look attractive to tempt students, particularly teenage girls,’ says Laura. ‘Offering such a variety on the salad bar means that even the pickiest eater can find enough to fill a plate. The trick is to make healthy food look inviting.”

"Even the leftover salad vegetables are fed to the school’s chickens."

Laura and her team of chefs have become adept at smuggling superfoods onto the table – the crumble conceals oats, the crispy Chinese side dish is actually kale and even the chocolate brownies are harbouring beetroot. And the students come back for more, with seconds of the main meal offered freely and the salad bar replenished throughout the sitting. Modern hygiene regulations severely prohibit the re-serving of uneaten food, so leftover roast chicken is never reincarnated into a curry the day after. However, practised in the art of food economy, Laura is often able to re-use extra stocks of ingredients or capitalise on fruits and vegetables in season.

“The school’s staff eat in the dining rooms too and are always happy to eat up any supplies,” she says. “Throughout the winter months we serve a soup of the day, which is a good way to use up extra vegetables, just as you would at home. It’s our duty to make the most of the school’s food budget and reduce waste. Even the leftover salad vegetables are fed to the school’s chickens!”

"Rather than an exercise in resilience, lunchtime at St Mary’s is seen as teaching time."

The goal though is for as much food as possible to be consumed by the students. “Many girls have quite a long journey to and from school and our days are packed, so it really is crucial to their health and wellbeing that students have a good lunch every day,” says Anwen Jones, director of St Mary’s senior school. ‘We are constantly on the look-out for students who may be avoiding lunch or whose eating habits change suddenly. As a fairly small school of 450 students, each individual is very well known by members of staff, so we quickly pick up on anything that might be wrong and use a range of approaches to tackle the issue before it has a chance to develop.”

There is no requirement for plates to be licked clean, however. Senior students tidy away their own crockery and cutlery and even wipe the table – a job that is alien to some at the age of 11. Rather than an exercise in resilience, lunchtime at St Mary’s is seen as teaching time.

“The aim is to make use of a valuable opportunity for students to learn how to dine,” says Hilary Vipond. “It’s really a demonstration of how a healthy, nutritious and plentiful meal should be planned and presented, and how to behave in a civilised environment in polite company. Whether at the family dinner table or a Michelin-starred restaurant, these skills and experiences add to the roundness of our students’ education and, like all our lessons and activities, prepare these young people for success in adult life.”