Jeanette Orrey The Dinner Lady

Jeanette Orrey is a Dinner lady, albeit the most highly awarded dinner lady ever. She was the inspiration for Jamie Oliver’s ‘Jamie’s School Dinners’ and is now the school meals policy advisor for the Soil Association in the UK. Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association says “Jeanette Orrey is an inspiration - she is living proof that one person who has a combination of energy and the right ideas at the right time can quite literally change the world.”.
The Soil Association has helped over 500 schools to improve school meals with their “Food for life” project which encompasses the whole school approach. 
Jeanette was one of the dinner ladies at St Peter’s School in Nottinghamshire, not necessarily because she had a ‘true vocation’ but because she wanted 2 or 3 hours work a day while her children were at school. All the skills she needed were to be able to use a scissors “to cut open packets of orange pulp and bung them in the ovens. Then we scooped out the mush and flung it into plastic flight trays” Everything was frozen supposedly safer. Most of the food came in kid friendly shapes, turkey dinosaurs, cheese feet, potato portholes, pork hippos ……
She wasn’t particularly passionate about food but she was totally shocked by the atrocious quality of the food supplied by the catering company for her to ‘heat up’ for the children. Her budget was 43p to provide 2 meals a day.
The final straw came when she opened the oven to take out a tray of pork hippos and was so repulsed by the smell and the pool of grease that she went to the headmaster and refused to serve the food to the kids preferring to go out and buy from her own pocket. She then persuaded the school to do in-house catering and gradually persuaded the parents to support what she was doing. She jumped in her car and went to visit local farmers and farm shops and did deals with them to supply local food. She also involved the children in the menus. One of the challenges was to convince the children that chickens were not dinasaurs. The numbers coming for school dinners shot up from 120 to 180 immediately.
The school became calmer as the childrens’ concentration and behaviour visibly improved. Her budget now is 70p – still minimal but it’s truly amazing what can be achieved with imagination and determination.
In 2005 she went on to write book of her recipes. - ‘The Dinner Lady’ was an instant success and the sequel ‘Second Helpings’ is also a best seller. Parents and senior citizens are invited to the school to the lunch club.
Jeanette recently spoke at a Slow Food event at the Cookery School and to the Free Choice Consumer group in Cork. She painted a grim picture of the situation at present.
As more children eat fast food on a regular basis, fewer families sit down to a meal together and a growing number cannot use cutlery. In the US 50% of kids can’t use a knife and fork. In 1930, 35% of a family income was spent on food – it is now less than 10% and statistics are similar in Ireland. We are now a much wealthier nation – why are we spending less on food? Our food should be our medicine rather than causing medical problems as so much food does nowadays. In the UK 40% of girls are deficient in iron. Numerous children are deficient in calcium, folic acid and essential vitamins and minerals for healthy growth..
There is a huge increase in Type 2 diabetes. The list goes on and is scary. Our children are our future – it must be a priority to feed them with fresh naturally produced food that will give them strength energy, vitality and the ability to concentrate. We are in the midst of a terrifying crisis. Many children have no idea where food comes from, a growing number of children cannot recognize even basic vegetables

Jeanette Orrey “The Dinner Lady” change the way your children eat, for life, published by Bantam Press €26.00     Buy this Book from Amazon
Jeanette Orrey “Second Helpings from the Dinner Lady” published by Bantam Press €29.00

Reuben’s Deli Wraps

These wraps make a great nutritious lunch for kids and adults. Parents seem to love their fresh-from-the-deli taste, and kids feel very grown-up eating them. Serve with a baked potato for a meal, or on their own as a snack. This recipe is slightly adapted from one used by chef friend Brent Castle.
Serves 4 Serves 96

450g (1lb) chicken breast 5.4kg (12lbs)
225g (8oz) iceberg lettuce 2.7kg (6lbs)
225g (8oz) white cabbage 2.7kg (6lbs)
225g (8oz) carrots 2.7kg (6lbs)
115g (4oz) Cheddar cheese 1.3kg (3lbs)
115g (4oz) Mayonnaise 1.3kg (3lbs)
25g (1oz) tomato ketchup 300g (10½ozs)
4-8 tortilla wraps 96

Preheat the oven to 120°C/250°F/Gas ½ 

Cut the chicken meat into fine slices and stir-fry in a little oil in a heavy based pan until thoroughly cooked. (If making the larger quantity, bake the chicken strips in the oven preheated to 200°C/400°F/Gas 6 for 5-10 minutes until thoroughly cooked.)

Finely shred the lettuce and cabbage, and grate the carrots and cheese. Mix together the grated vegetables and cheese. Mix together the mayonnaise and tomato ketchup to make a sauce. 
Brush the tortilla wraps with a little oil and put in a low preheated oven for 2 minutes to warm through. 

Spoon a little of the sauce over the wraps, lay a slice or two of the chicken strips along the wrap and put a spoonful of the vegetable and cheese mix on top. Wrap up and serve.

Taken from Jeanette Orrey’s ‘The Dinner Lady’ © 2005

Jeanette Orrey’s Cheesy Yorkshire Puddings

When I make these, I always leave the batter mixture to rest for about 20 minutes. Then, just before I put the liquid into the tin, I give the batter one last whisk. The puddings always seem to rise better this way – try it! The home-kitchen quanity makes about 24 small puddings. Serve with some good local sausages, mashed potato and seasonal vegetables.
Serves 4 Serves 96

225g (8oz) plain flour 2.7kg (6lb)
a pinch ground pepper ½ teaspoon
2 eggs 24
600ml(1 pint) milk 6.8 litres (12 pints)
115g (4oz) Cheddar cheese 1.3kg (3lb)
olive oil

Sift the flour and pepper together into a bowl. Add the eggs and half the milk, and beat well until smooth. Beat in the remaining milk. Leave to rest for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven well to 200°C/425°F/Gas 7. Grate the cheese.

Grease patty or Yorkshire pudding tins with olive oil and put into the hot oven for 5 minutes. Take out of the oven and divide the batter mix between the tins. Quickly add a little cheese to each Yorkshire, and bake in the very hot preheated oven until well risen and golden brown, around 10 minutes.

Taken from Jeanette Orrey’s ‘The Dinner Lady’ © 2005

Jeanette Orrey’s Real Chicken Nuggets

This is one of the simplest recipes in the book, and I’d much rather have the children eat these, made from local free-range or organic chicken, than any of the ingredients in the shop-bought chicken nugget. Get the children to help you make them – they love tossing the chicken in a bag of breadcrumbs. One adult portion will be roughly ten nuggets. Serve with some home-made tomato sauce or relish.
Serves 4 Serves 96

225g (8oz) bread (brown or white) 2.7kg (6lbs)
½ teaspoon garlic powder 3 tablespoons
¼ teaspoon paprika 2 tablespoons
1 egg 12
125ml (4floz) milk 1.5 litres (2½ pints)
900g (2 lb) diced chicken 10.8kg (24lbs) 

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas 6

Slice the bread, then toast it until light brown. Break up into pieces, crusts and all, and reduce to fine crumbs in the food processor. Add the garlic powder and paprika, and whiz again. Place the breadcrumbs in a large plastic freezer bag or a deep tray. 

Beat the egg in a large bowl with the milk, and add the chicken pieces, in batches if necessary. Transfer the chicken pieces to the bag or tray of breadcrumbs and toss to coat evenly. 

Arrange the crumbed chicken on a lightly greased baking sheet, and bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes until browned and crisp and cooked through. 

Taken from Jeanette Orrey’s ‘The Dinner Lady’ © 2005

Jeanette Orrey’s Spicy Lamb Burgers

This recipe was devised at the new training kitchen in Essex, and I have thank Simon Owens, who work with there. Everyone who eats the burgers thinks they are great. Serve in a halved warm pitta bread or mini burger buns, with salad and a fresh mint and yoghurt dressing, or a salad of chopped carrots, tomato and cucumber. Add a squeeze of lemon to the lamb burgers once they are cooked.
Makes about 16

½ bunch of fresh coriander
175g (6oz) onions, peeled and finely chopped
1 small red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 kg (2¼ lb) minced lamb
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
½ teaspoon ground coriander
1 egg, beaten

Wash the fresh coriander thoroughly. Cook the onion and chilli in the olive oil in a frying pan until golden and soft. Leave to cool a little.

Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl and stir until thoroughly mixed. Divide the mixture into small burgers, shaping them as you wish; but it should make about 16. 

Place on a baking sheet and cook under a hot grill for 3-4 mins on each side, or for 2-4 mins on each side on the barbeque.

Taken from Jeanette Orrey’s ‘Second Helpings from The Dinner Lady’ © 2006

Jeanette Orrey’s Vegetable Lasagne

This is a good way to get children to eat vegetables. Make sure you dice them very small and to begin with just give them a small amount. They will be back for more, I can tell you. Serve with some fresh bread rolls or crusty bread.
Serve 4 Serves 96

225g (8oz) pre-cooked lasagne 2kg (4½lb)
1 tablespoon olive oil 175ml (6floz)
175g (6oz) onions 1.3kg (3lb)
175g (6oz) carrots 1.3kg (3lb)
3 sticks celery 2 heads
175g (6oz) courgettes 1.3kg (3lb)
½ teaspoon mixed dried herbs 55g (2oz)
1 x 400g can chopped tomatoes 2 x A10 (2.7kg) cans
115g (4oz) tomato puree 1.3kg (3lb)
300ml (10floz) water 3.4 litres (6pints)

Cheese Sauce
115g (4oz) Cheddar cheese 1.3kg (3lb)
25g (1oz) butter or margarine 350g (12oz)
25g (1oz) plain flour 350g (12oz)
600ml (1pint) milk 6.8 litres (12pints)
½ teaspoon wholegrain mustard 55g (2oz)

Preheat the oven the 200°C/400°F/Gas 6. Grease a deep lasagne dish, approximately 30cm (12in) square, with a little of the oil. 

Peel and dice the onions. Wash the carrots and celery and then dice. Trim the courgettes, and slice thinly. Grate the cheese for the sauce. 
Saute the onions, carrots, celery and courgettes in the remaining olive oil for a few minutes, then add the herbs, tomatoes, tomato puree and water. Bubble for 10-15 minutes. 

Make the cheese sauce by melting the butter or margarine then adding the flour. Cook until the texture and colour are sandy, then add the milk, stirring continuously until thickened and smooth. Add the cheese and mustard, and cook for a further 2-3 minutes.
Arrange half of the lasagne on the base of the dish. Pour half the vegetables over the lasagne, then top with another layer of lasagne. Top with the remaining vegetables, then pour over the cheese sauce. Bake in the preheated oven until golden brown and the lasagne is soft, about 30-35 minutes.

Taken from Jeanette Orrey’s ‘The Dinner Lady’ © 2005

Fool Proof Recipe

Jeanette Orrey’s Banana Loaf

This loaf is ideal for us at school because you just have to slice it to serve. Bananas are great for energy, as well, just what the children need after working hard all morning. You could also ice this (add a little vanilla essence to the icing), if you like.
Serves 4 Serves 96

2 ripe banana 24
175g (6oz) butter or margarine 1.3kg (3lb)
175g (6oz) caster sugar 1.3kg (3lb)
3 eggs 24
225g (8oz) self-raising flour 2.7kg (6lb)
½ teaspoon baking powder 2 tablespoons
½ teaspoon vanilla essence 2 tablespoons
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon 2 tablespoons
1 banana for decoration (optional ) 12

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas 4

Peel the bananas then crush with a fork. Beat together the butter or margarine and sugar, then add the eggs alternately with the flour and baking powder. Fold in the crushed banana, vanilla essence and cinnamon.

Pour the mixture into a greased 450g (1lb) tin, and top, if liked, with long thin slices of banana. Bake in the preheated oven for about 40 minutes. Cool slightly then turn on to a wire tray. When cool, slice.

Taken from Jeanette Orrey’s ‘The Dinner Lady’ © 2005

Hot tip
Lovers of Irish farmhouse cheese, ‘new age’ food producers and artisans will be delighted to hear that Giana Ferguson of Gubbeen Cheese, near Schull in west Cork, will hold a three-day cheese-making course on her farm from May 19-21.
For details, phone 028-28231 or email  

Grow your own — pick up ready-to-plant salad and vegetable plants in Cork at Midleton farmers’ market on Saturdays, 9am-1pm, or Mahon Point farmers’ market, Thursdays, 9am-2pm. 

Clodagh McKenna’s Food Fair is at Cork’s Fota House every Sunday, 11am-5pm. It includes a farmers’ market with more than 20 stalls selling delicious pates, fresh breads, smoked fish, juices, chocolates and more. Eat some fantastic food while you’re there, from crepes and BBQ sausages to fresh smoothies and great coffee. 

For cookery demonstrations, check out   for info on classes. There’s also live music, the wildlife park and gardens. For train connections (only 15 minutes from Cork, at which there are inter-city trains) to Fota, see

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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