New figures from education watchdog Ofsted showing meal uptake has fallen at three-quarters of inspected schools have reinforced fears the school meals system is near crisis.
Ofsted's Food in Schools report, published today, reveals the number of pupils eating school meals has fallen in 19 of the 27 schools in England it has visited since the interim food-based standards came into force in September 2006, restricting the availability of junk food.
Although the standards body admits the reasons for this are complex, it singled out a lack of consultation with pupils and parents, poor marketing of new menus and lack of choice in what is on offer, as contributing factors to the fall.
Ofsted added dining areas needed to be made more attractive, lunch-time queues tackled and more areas opened up to allow pupils to socialise to reverse the decline.
Christine Gilbert, chief inspector of education, children's Services and skills at Ofsted, said: "Schools that had the most impact in encouraging healthy choices were those which gave a priority to this as part of their day-to-day work.
"They encourage the involvement of pupils themselves in designing school menus and worked hard to make their families understand the importance of healthy schools."
Ofsted's report comes after separate surveys by the Local Authority Caterers Association and the School Food Trust both showed meal uptake in England had bombed since restrictions came in, especially at secondary education level.
In September, the Liberal Democrats claimed the future of the school meals system looked bleak without intervention, and a month earlier the boss of the largest private school meals contractor Scolarest expressed fears the pace of school meals reform was too fast.
By Chris Druce