Menu essentials

Healthy snacksCarefully planning your menu is important. It should offer your customers some core items that seldom change, with variety provided by daily specials or on particular days of the week. These can be either recess or lunch specials. Seasonal fruit should be available year-round and presented in an attractive and appropriate way (e.g. cut or whole). Here are some things to think about when planning your menu:

1. Find out what your customers want

In a primary school  decisions are made mostly by the parents, but by high schools the food choices are completely up to the students. Plus, you have teachers and administration staff who may use the canteen.  Once a year create a simple, tick-box survey as a way to gain feedback from your customers. Provide a range of new options that you are willing to provide and ask for them to be ranked or ticked. This will give you some control as to what you offer and help limit unrealistic and unhealthy requests.

2. Create a menu that is both appealing but manageable

A good compromise between offering sufficient choice for customers, while keeping the overheads (storage requirements and preparation time) down, is to limit the menu. Here are some suggestions:

  • Offer up to 10 sandwich/wrap fillings, no more.
  • Only provide 8 snack foods available at recess and lunch.
  • Offer only 8 hot food varieties throughout the week – with only 2 to 3 available each day.
  • Keep up to 6 frozen items stocked, no more.
  • Water and only 3 milk and juice flavours each.

Having too many items on the menu can cause issues for storage and profitability. Understand your best sellers and remove slow selling items. However, be careful not to remove slow moving products that are stocked to cater for specific medical or cultural needs of students (such as soy drinks or non yeast and gluten free bread products).

3. GREEN it up!

Some simple solutions to ensuring your menu is as healthy as it can be are:

  • Offer water and a piece of fruit with any prepackaged hot item, as a Meal Deal – this is a great way to sell excess stock, slow selling items or left over fruit.
  • Use reduced fat dairy options for any cheese, milk or yoghurt being used.
  • Offer wholemeal/whole grain breads, by default and only use white bread on request.
  • Include at least one salad or vegetable filling on all sandwiches, toasted sandwiches, wraps and rolls.
  • Use polyunsaturated or monounsaturated margarine sparingly – make sure you can see the bread through the spread!
  • Use spreads e.g. vegemite, sparingly.
  • Use reduced fat, reduced salt ham and only use a small amount.

4. Limit AMBER options

Too often canteens offer a whole host of prepackaged hot foods for ease of operation, but these items should not be offered every single day. For instance, instead of offering sausage rolls, pies, chicken nuggets, lasagne, fried rice, beef and chicken burgers each day, split them up so they’re only offered on certain days of the week. Spreading the AMBER hot items across the week, limits the availability of unhealthier foods, but also makes preparing the meals much easier and streamlined for canteen staff.

Monday – Lasagne or chicken nuggets

Tuesday – Chicken burger or fried rice

Wednesday – Sausage roll or chicken nuggets

Thursday – Noodle Cup or Beef Burger

Friday – Pies or Chicken burger

5. Beware of occasional foods – Red Sneakers

When you hear about ‘red sneakers’ we’re not talking about a pair of shoes! We’re talking about food items that sneak onto the canteen menu, without people realising they are actually a RED, occasional food. Sometimes this is due to misinformation from the distributor, sometimes it’s because the previous manager sold the item and sometimes it’s accidental.

It is important to check with your state strategy to ensure your menu does not contain any foods that you should not be selling. Confectionary items, energy-dense drinks and ice creams are often common items that appear on menus. Always check with your state strategy to ensure your menu fits within the guidelines. Or, member schools can call us for specific information on products.

Don’t forget, every school is permitted just two RED days per term. This includes fundraising, school fetes and athletics carnivals. Use this handy RED days school event planner to ensure you stick to your two days.

6. Use your state/territory association to help plan your menu

Each state or territory generally has a body that supports and advises school canteens – In NSW and ACT, it’s us. In most instances there is a policy/strategy/guideline that determines what food and drink can and cannot be sold in schools.  Find out which organisation advises your state through our Government policy page.

Sample canteen menus

When it comes to your menu, planning makes perfect! Healthy food choices don’t have to be complicated – sometimes all you need is a little inspiration to get you started. These sample canteen menus will give you some ideas on how to prepare and plan to provide your students with delicious and fresh healthy food choices.

Don’t forget to look at the healthy canteen guidelines for your state to ensure you’re meeting the policies. And like our Facebook page to keep up with what’s going on in the world of kids nutrition, school canteens and healthy eating.

 Hidden below are downloadable PDF versions of sample menus for primary and high schools, plus an article on ‘The Art of Menu Planning’. If you’re a member, you’ll already be able to see this information (or you can login now). If you’re not a member, we’d love you to join us.

The following PDFs will give you some good ideas on how to shape your menu:


The Art of Menu Planning The Art of Menu Planning



Primary School Sample Menu

Primary School Menu Sample



High School Sample MenuHigh School Menu Sample



And if you’d like to see a ‘before and after’ menu, one that has gone from RED and AMBER to GREEN, there is a working example here


Don’t forget, to run a successful canteen you need to be savvy at pricing. Make sure you charge enough for the items on your menu. Mark up will vary according to your canteens’ situation. Mark ups cover all expenses such as electricity and gas, wages and employment costs (if there are any), lease fee (if there is one), maintenance costs and profit, as well as the cost of the goods (goods and packaging).

The mark up you use is influenced by numerous factors, including canteen running costs and operating model, desired profit and any policy that may encourage the sale of healthier items. See the finance page for more information on menu pricing.