Once notoriously unpalatable, boarding school food has evolved to cater to modern appetites and a modern understanding of nutrition – children and adolescents who expect a variety of tastes to choose from and who need sustenance to power them through high-energy days of physical activity and intellectual effort. Gone are the days of watery mince, soggy mashed potato and a “take it or leave it” mentality in Australia’s boarding schools. Boarders these days can choose from a wide variety of quality offerings.
Melbourne Girls Grammar boarders enjoy sushi for morning tea, and curry and banh mi rolls for lunch, says director of boarding Amanda Haggie. Some girls prefer a morning tea of yoghurt with berry compote or a piece of banana loaf, for lunch others might prefer to build a salad from the salad bar, with cucumber, cherry tomatoes, lettuce, and maybe feta or chicken or salami.
For dinner, burrito rolls made with chipotle chicken are popular, and Pasta Tuesday is a favourite. Dessert could be cake or apple crumble with custard, and a large fruit salad is on offer every evening.
In a term of nine or 10 weeks, boarders might be offered the same dinner twice and there’s a new menu every term. “With all the different dietary requirements and the diverse population in the boarding house, we cater to many a palate, so we provide a variety,” Haggie says. “There’s always something to choose.”
Younger boarders are naturally less adventurous and homesick children can crave mum’s cooking.
About 40 primary school-aged children board at Tudor House, King’s School, in rural NSW, and the school is happy to provide off-menu “comfort food” to help unsettled children adjust to their new surroundings. A Year 1 East Asian boy who came to board at Tudor House wanted to eat rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner, remembers head of school Adam Larby. “It wasn’t on the menu but we tried in those initial phases to provide it as an option for him.”
Another boy craved a particular Korean ramen noodle, and Tudor House managed to track it down for him.
The children of Tudor House prefer simpler tastes and home-cooked food rather than “fancy gourmet stuff”, Larby says, but older students in boarding schools across Australia are usually offered a range of more sophisticated foods over the school year.
Most boarding schools heed the advice of nutritionists these days, and Churchie headmaster Alan Campbell says effective boarding schools seek the views of parents and the students themselves.
The Brisbane boarding school, more formally known as the Anglican Church Grammar School, uses surveys and food committees to ensure direct feedback from the boarders, now numbering nearly 140 boys.
“Voluntary dietary requirements are now in vogue,” Campbell says.
“A generation ago you were provided with whatever was available and that was what was served and if was no good you would get on with it. We live in a vastly different world today.”
Churchie boarders, who range in age from 12 to 18, need solid sustenance to keep them moving through days of sport, active leisure and intense mental concentration.
International students often don’t like salad … and some students think if a meal doesn’t include potatoes, it’s not a real meal
Like most boarding schools, Churchie provides breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and supper, but sugar has been largely eliminated from the dining room and common spaces. Instead there are multiple bowls of fresh fruit and cereals in the houses, and Churchie head of boarding Jason Wynne-Markham says the school’s house mothers provide birthday cakes and treats for special occasions.
And the boys can buy lollies if they wish to.
Churchie menus include theme nights ranging from Chinese through to Mexican. Wynne-Markham says most of the boys come from regional Australia and they tend to prefer simple meals, meat with mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables on the side.
“We’re very interested in exploring the development of their palate while they’re here,” he says.
The likes and dislikes of the girl boarders at St Michael’s Collegiate in Tasmania range across the spectrum of tastes from a few who want to put chilli and sriracha on everything to a girl who says plain chicken soup is too spicy for her.
Collegiate’s director of boarding Mika Browning says it’s important to provide the school’s 25 energetic young women boarders with a wide variety of offerings and the school runs regular food surveys to ensure the menus are meeting expectations.
“Some students just want mince and broccoli,” Browning says. “Younger students tend to have a blander palate.”
International students often don’t like salad, she adds, regarding it as uncooked food that could make them sick, and some students think if a meal doesn’t include potatoes, it’s not a real meal.
“You can’t make everybody happy all the time,” she says. “So it’s about having a really varied menu.”