School lunches in Ireland

A few weeks back, I wrote about school in Ireland and alluded to the differences in the lunch system between here and the US.  The few months leading up to Isaac starting school, I envisioned that Isaac would eat lunch in the cafeteria, just like I did in the US.  In fact, when I went to register him for school, it didn’t even occur to me to ask about lunches.  Of course he would either bring his lunch or eat at school – in the cafeteria!  Except…not.  Here in Ireland, most schools do not have a cafeteria, (also known as a canteen).  Instead, all students bring their lunch and eat in the classroom, at their desks. They can have a small portion of their lunch during their first break, and the rest during their lunch break.

The lunch must not need refrigeration, and there is no access to a microwave or kettle to heat up food.  Moreover, there are specific requirements for what can and cannot be included in the lunch.  Items not allowed include:

[checklist icon=”fa-times” iconcolor=”” circle=”” circlecolor=”” size=”small” class=”” id=””]
[li_item icon=””]Nuts of any type, including peanut butter[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Sweets, including candy, cookies/biscuits, sweet buns, cakes, and chocolate[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Chips or crisps – this includes any similar “foil wrapped products like popcorn or pretzels[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]No fizzy (carbonated) drinks, including fruit-based drinks[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Juice is discouraged[/li_item]
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What is most interesting to me is that this policy is enforced every day. All year.  As frustrating as it is that we don’t have another option except to pack a lunch for Isaac, I really do like that the school reinforces the eating habits we have established at home.  Easy on the sweets and junk food.  No carbonated drinks. Focus on whole foods.  It also begs the question – what exactly do you pack in your child’s lunch besides ham and cheese, that fits within these guidelines?  For someone who ate peanut butter and jam growing up, this is very challenging! After trial and error – here is what we have come up with for Isaac’s lunch:

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[li_item icon=””]Ham and cheese[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Cream cheese and jam[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Egg salad or egg mayo[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Shredded carrot, shredded cheddar, and cream cheese sandwich[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Quesadillas[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Hamburger, turkey burger, or lentil burger (leftovers)[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Pitas, hummus and tzatziki[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Leftover fried rice[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Leftover frittata[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Mini Quiches[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]And Isaac’s favorite – Runzas, a stuffed pastry with ground beef and cabbage. Definitely related to Brad for this one![/li_item]
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I usually include some chopped veggies such as carrot sticks, bell pepper sticks, cucumber or celery, along with fruit or yogurt.  He also takes a water bottle.  Obviously not every school has this policy.  I know of several schools that provide hot lunches, and schools in economically disadvantaged areas have also started breakfast clubs to ensure students have the opportunity to eat breakfast.  In general, parents do not come to school and eat lunch with their child, or bring fast food to share with their child.  The school day is much shorter anyway, so if I want to take Isaac to McDonald’s, I can do that after I collect him at 1:30.

School lunches in Ireland – yet another thing that I didn’t expect to be different, but we have grown to like it anyway.

School in Ireland

We are now into the second week of the school term, and I thought it would be the perfect time to discuss school here in Ireland.

This is our second year in the formal school system.  The school year runs from the first of September to the end of June, with a two-month summer break.  Schools have a mid-term break around Halloween, two weeks at Christmas, a mid-term break in February, and a two week break surrounding Easter.  Isaac is in Sr. Infants which is similar to first grade in the US. The first year of school is called Jr Infants.  Isaac has the same teacher for both junior and senior infants, and will have the same set of classmates throughout primary school.

Public or Private?

Isaac attends a public, or National School, near our home.  There are also private, or “fee-paying” schools in Ireland.  However, we don’t have any private schools near us, so we opted to start in the National School system, with the thought that if we needed to make a change, we could do that later.  We have been very happy with Isaac’s school.  His teacher is wonderful, and being in the local school has afforded us the opportunity to make friends with other families in the area.  Because there are so many multinational companies in our area, Isaac’s class is very international.  There are children from France, the Philippines, the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe, in addition to his Irish classmates.  Isaac is the only American in his class though.

Isaac’s school is a Catholic school.  There are public schools in Ireland affiliated with the Catholic church, the Church of Ireland (Anglican), Christian Ethos/Non-Denominational, and schools unaffiliated with any religious belief.   The students in Isaac’s class are primarily Catholic, but the school has a policy of admitting at least 30% non-Catholics, which is more reflective of the area.

Uniform, or not?
Clearly he loves having his picture taken!
Clearly he loves having his picture taken!

Nearly every school in Ireland, public or private, requires a uniform.  Isaac is required to wear his crested tracksuit (sweatpants and sweatshirt with embroidered logo), plus the accompanying polo to school every day.  Beginning next year, he will only be allowed to wear his tracksuit on PE days.  The rest of the time, he will wear navy dress pants, white button-down shirt, tie and navy sweater with school crest (“jumper”). Girls can wear pants, or a skirt or pinafore (what the US would call a jumper), with white blouse/button down shirt, and sweater. Nearly all girls I see are wearing the skirt or pinafore. Although the shoes of kids in the younger grades vary widely, in the older grades, everyone is wearing black or navy dress shoes.  If you go into the shoe stores here during the “back to school” sales, you see nothing but black, blue and brown dress shoes.

When students begin secondary school, the uniform becomes more formal, with boys required to wear a jacket and tie some days, and virtually all girls in skirts.

Typical School Day

The school day for the first two years is 8:50 – 1:30, with before and aftercare available onsite. The times vary slightly from school to school.  After Jr and Sr Infants, the school day extends to 2:30 pm.  As someone who is accustomed to the longer US school day, I was skeptical at first.  The fact that they can get all the instruction in 4.5 hours is really impressive. Isaac’s classroom is intentionally “low-tech”. Although they have computers and iPads at their disposal, the teachers prefer a much more hands-on approach. I prefer the Montessori or Waldorf teaching philosophies, so the low-tech approach is just fine with me.  Other parents chafe at it, so it’s all in personal preference.

During the day, students have two recesses: a 10-minute “walk and talk” break, and a longer 20-30 minute break after lunch. There is no playground at the school, which seems to be the norm here.  The children play soccer, or other yard games.  Most Irish schools do not have a cafeteria, or canteen. Rather, children bring their lunch every day, and eat lunch in the classroom. (I’ll write a post later about school lunches, and the interesting dynamics around that.)

Subjects

During the day, they cover all the topics you would expect: reading, mathematics (which they call “maths” here), writing, science, religion, social studies/history, music.  I love the focus on penmanship.  Isaac will start learning cursive this year.  His teacher also focuses on writing skills – she has the children writing and illustrating stories.  The parents are required to purchase the schoolbooks each year for their child.  In addition to the school books, Isaac’s school collects an “Art and Supply” fee from each child.  This fee covers all of his school supplies for the year. I love this setup, because as the parent, I do not have to go to 6 different stores looking for items off the school supply list.

Introduction to Cursive!
Introduction to Cursive!

Children in Ireland also learn the Irish language as a part of the curriculum.  In fact, if you live in Ireland you have the option of having your child(ren) educated entirely in Irish, at a Gaelscoil. As Brad and I do not know any Irish, and it is not spoken outside of Ireland, we chose not to send our kids to an Gaelscoil.  (It was also a bit out of the way from where we live.)  However, all of Isaac’s non-academic instruction, “Stand up”, “Take your seats”, “Line up at the door”, etc is conducted in Irish.  As a result, Isaac speaks a lot more Irish than we do!

*As a general note, this post just serves to share our experience, which has been very positive.  Just as in every country around the world, if you were to ask 5 different families, you would get 5 different experiences in school system. Some schools are longer, shorter, richer, poorer, single-sex, co-ed, and the list goes on.  As in life, there is no ‘average’ experience.  What other questions do you have?

x Rheagan