It’s one of those things I could never imagine doing: spending the better half of a day confined to a small room making sandwiches and putting pies in a warmer, while little people crowd around a counter clutching silver coins in their sweaty palms. Yet once you’ve got a school age child, volunteering to help in the school canteen or ‘tuckshop’ is just one of a raft of new primary school obligations to be navigated.
After my son pleaded with me for the gazillionth time to help in the Canteen (more so because the kids get a free Paddle Pop when their mum is on duty than a deep-seated desire to see me during the day I’m sure), I locked in a date with my buddy, and we dutifully rocked up at 9.30am one Tuesday morning, ready to wear disposable gloves and be tested on our mental arithmetic.
That day I learnt a bunch of things. I learnt that a School Canteen is a finely oiled machine built upon a tight timetable to create fresh, healthy food for hundreds of hungry mouths. I learnt what happens when you mess up a lunch order for one of those hungry mouths (tears, hiccups, and little cross faces – and that was just from the Canteen Manager…). And I found out what a Chicken Goujong* is.
But this is what I discovered that day about what to wear when you’re on Canteen Duty:
1. Tie your hair up and out of your eyes.
You don’t want to be flinging your hair around and having a lock fall in little Jack’s ham sandwich. Plus, some canteen managers will make you wear your hair in a hair net if you’re not careful (shudder!), so it’s worth going so far as to slick it back, or secure it with a side clip.
2. Cover up the cleavage.
The only thing worse than leaning over the counter to hand over change to a pack of six-year olds and having them squeal ‘boobies!’ is leaning over the counter to hand over change to a ten-year old boy and having them stare. A fitted top or tank that sits simply and flatly against your upper chest will do the job, or wear a shirt or blouse buttoned up high.
3. Cover up the toe cleavage.
While Beryl who runs the canteen is probably not that fussed about your toe cleavage, she’s quite likely to be concerned about the School’s Occupational Health and Safety Guidelines once you step foot on her turf. And she’s a stickler for rules. Avoid her disapproving raised eyebrow, and the chance of a piping hot Sausage Roll landing on your tootsies, and wear closed-toe shoes like a brogue, loafer or your favourite Converse.
4. BYO apron.
It’s messy business in the bowels of the school canteen, so cover up your Sass & Bide denims with an apron. Just don’t accidentally grab the Wild Turkey apron your husband was given as a gift with purchase when he bought a six-pack or you’ll end up wearing a well-worn and deeply stained spare one from Beryl’s cupboard instead.
5. Avoid the ‘arm party’.
A crowd of your favourite bracelets and bangles jingling away on your wrist is a fun way to add some sparkle to the average day, but by the time you’ve spread margarine on your 30th sandwich, the sound will be like fingernails on an old school chalkboard. Leave noisy and fiddly accessories at home where they can party like crazy while you’re out.
Yet despite the mysterious stain I left with on the sleeve of my shirt, despite being chastised by the Canteen Manager for being 5 minutes late, and despite feeling humiliated at my lack of swift simple mental arithmetic skills ($2.40 minus 70 cents is whaaaat?!), the day spent working in the Canteen was worth it when I saw my little guy’s smiling eyes peeping over the top of that high serving counter, and when he proudly nudged his friend saying “that’s my mum!”.
What are your fail-safe tips for surviving Canteen Duty?
*Fancy name for a chicken nugget