Free School Lunch: How Finland Does It

Did you know? Finland was the first country in the world to serve free school meals. The school meal system was originally introduced in the 1920s, but free school meals began in the 1940s. To this day, Finland provides high-quality free school meals to all students aged six to eighteen. Well-balanced meals improve students’ health and wellbeing which in turn improves their learning potential and outcomes. It is one of the elements that contribute to the success of Finland’s education system.

Photo: Keski-Suomen museo / Pänkäläinen Antti

Photo: Keski-Suomen museo / Pänkäläinen Antti

“School meals are an investment in equality and the future. They build equality between children from different backgrounds, strengthening equal opportunity.” - Finland Toolbox

Nutritional school meals are a part of every student’s education in Finland. They act as a holistic pedagogical practice to teach children about nutrition, good eating habits, international food cultures, as well as the environmental impact of food. School lunch break routines cover many objectives from the Finnish curriculum implementation and developing transversal competencies like everyday life skills, participation, active citizenship, and building a sustainable future.

The school’s lunch break is an unhurried experience for both the students as well as the teachers. During lunchtime from 11 to noon, students can enjoy the relaxing dining area and spend time together with their classmates and teachers. This improves their wellbeing and helps develop their social and communication skills. The dining area is well-lit, clean, and includes small tables that promote comfortable eating and conversation. Students and teachers collect their lunch on a self-service basis from the buffet, with the help of a tray. There are always catering staff present to help with special diets and questions.

Fun fact: The school canteen is a place for older students to help in. They help their younger peers collect their lunch meals and at the same time, learn more about nutrition and how to manage the canteen.


The foundation of Finnish food culture is formed by food from Finland’s land, lakes, and forests. Oats, rye, barley, potatoes, onions, cabbages, and root vegetables are grown on land while berries and mushrooms are supplied by the vast forests. As the land of a thousand lakes, fish is also a key pillar of the food culture.

Fun fact: Schools usually serve a vegetarian meal to all students at least one day per week.

An exemplar lunch menu would include:

  • ½ plate: vegetables (fresh or cooked)

  • ¼ plate: potatoes, rice, or pasta

  • ¼ plate: fish, meat, or vegetarian option

  • Drinks: water, different milk options

  • Sides: Bread or rye crispbread with margarine or butter

  • Dessert: berries or fruit (other desserts also provided for special occasions or if the energy content of the main meal is not high.)

Fun fact: In the 1970s, school meals often included new food products that were not yet popular in the students’ homes e.g., spaghetti and rice.


Food education in Finland’s education system covers more than the hour’s lunchtime during the day. Students learn how to cook through various school subjects, especially home economics, while discovering the impact of food on the environment, economy, health, and culture.

Each municipality is responsible for evaluating the schools’ meals. Section 31 of the Basic Education Act states that students must be provided with a balanced meal every school day. The average cost of a single school meal is approximately 2.8 euros per child. Budgets are decided locally, so school meals’ costs depend on the municipal councils’ decision-making.

In Finland, student participation and ownership of learning and everyday school life is highly valued. Therefore school meals are constantly developing as students and teachers provide feedback and suggestions to better meet the needs of the current and future preferences.

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