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Free school meals – eligibility and how to apply

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If you have kids, you’ll know that parenting is a pricey business. Sadly, waving goodbye to the children at the school gate doesn’t mean bidding a fond farewell to the expense! 

School lunches are usually just another cost on the long (and often expanding) list of things to fork out for. There are however a few exceptions that mean your child could be eligible for free school meals.

You probably won’t be surprised to know that there isn’t a straightforward answer to this question – frustratingly, the rules regarding free school meals vary across the UK.

Whether or not your child is entitled to free school meals usually comes down to what, if any, benefits you receive. 

  • In England, all infant school pupils (every child in reception class, year 1 & 2) in state funded schools can get a free lunch. 
  • In Scotland, all children from primary one to three in state funded schools are eligible for free lunches.  

If your child isn’t in those year groups or goes to school in Northern Ireland or Wales, your child might still qualify for free school meals if you are claiming certain benefits and are on a low income. 

And although they might not technically be at ‘school’ anymore, students between 16 and 18 are also offered free lunches in some parts of the UK, depending again on their parent’s circumstances. 

Children who get paid qualifying benefits directly, instead of through a parent or guardian, can also get free school meals.

Find out your eligibility for free school meals and how to apply in EnglandScotlandWales and Northern Ireland

How do I apply for free school meals?

The process for applying for free school meals varies from council to council. In some cases, you apply through your local authority and in others you might need to apply directly to the school – but your council website will tell you this.

If you’re not sure of your local council, you can find them at  GOV.UK (Opens in a new window) website

Can my child get free school meals if I’m on Universal Credit?

If you’re on Universal Credit, your child might be entitled to free school meals, but it also depends on how much you earn, and (surprise, surprise!) rules around the earnings threshold also depends on where you are in the UK.

So this is another one where you’ll need to check your relevant government website, using one of the links above.

Can my child get free school meals if I get Working Tax Credits?

Unfortunately, if you receive Working Tax Credits your child won’t qualify for free school meals. However, if you are receiving Working Tax Credit run-on (the payment you receive for a further four weeks after you stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit) your child will usually be entitled.

Are foster children entitled to free school meals?

The rules around eligibility for free school meals work the same for carers and foster parents as they do for birth parents, so you can use the guidance and links provided above to check eligibility.

However, if you’re a foster parent who is paid an allowance, things are a little more complicated.

This is because the allowance is supposed to already include covering the cost of school meals. If this is your situation the best thing to do is speak to your local authority as you might want to come to some arrangement – e.g. that your foster child receives their free school meal, but that the part of the allowance for free school meals is not paid to you – or alternatively that you are paid the full allowance, but that your foster child does not receive free school meals.

What is provided in a free school meal?

Again, this will vary from council to council and children getting free school meals might not always get the same meals as those who pay in full.

If your child’s school has a cafeteria system, your child will usually get vouchers but systems vary from school to school. The good news is that England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales all have mandatory standards for the food provided by schools, so your child’s school meal should be reasonably healthy – although you can find out more information from the school itself.

In some parts of the UK your child might also get free milk, in addition to their free school meal.

How much do school meals cost?

School lunches will usually cost between £2 and £3. If you’re not entitled to free school meals those costs can really add up, especially if you have multiple children. If you haven’t already, it might be worth considering sending your kids to school with a packed lunch instead (an oldie, but a goodie!).

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It’s usually possible to pack a healthy lunchbox much more cheaply than paying for school dinners - especially if you buy ingredients that can go in the freezer. Change 4 life have some healthy lunchbox ideas if you’re not sure where to start.

If you’re struggling with the cost of bringing up a child, don’t forget we can help you to make sure you’re getting all the right benefits. You can also find more information on things like uniform grants, school travel costs and other related advice and guidance on turn2US website (Opens in a new window)


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