Designing School Cafeterias That Engage and Inspire

Designing School Cafeterias That Engage and Inspire

School cafeterias represent a key design opportunity. Where else in the building do all students spend a portion of every school day?

As a hub where students come together, school cafeterias can be fundamental in helping to build a sense of community. Besides serving meals, cafeterias can fill a variety of other roles as well, such as doubling as a “learning commons” where students gather to study or socialize—or transforming into a banquet hall for hosting dances and community events.

Achieving these desired outcomes relies on having an effective design. With the right design, your school cafeteria can engage and inspire students. Foster school pride and spirit. Extend learning beyond the classroom. Even generate additional revenue.

Here are six recommendations for designing school cafeterias that meet these goals and more.

Look to the places students like to hang out for inspiration.

Think about where students like to spend their time after school: a coffee shop, a café, a food court at the mall. What do these environments have in common? Aside from offering a tasty snack or beverage, these places also create a warm and welcoming atmosphere, a vibe that says: “Come in, sit down and relax with your friends.”

School cafeterias can recreate that vibe in order to draw students in, to become places where students want to spend their time. Instead of replicating the drab, institutional look and feel of a traditional cafeteria, could you choose vibrant colors and comfortable, attractive furnishings that make the space more appealing? Could you add self-service kiosks where students can get food or drinks outside of normal breakfast or lunch hours? How about a cafe-style section with coffee and pastries?

By taking inspiration from the places students like to congregate, you can turn your cafeteria into a modern hub where students connect with each other—and with their school.

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Indoor/Outdoor Cafeteria Rendering created by School Specialty® Projects By Design®

Offer a variety of seating choices.

Giving students multiple seating options makes your school cafeteria more comfortable and inviting. It also makes the space feel more inclusive. Having multiple options to choose from, such as traditional picnic tables as well as booths and café-style seating, caters to different preferences and makes students feel more welcome.

Make sure you offer seating options that can accommodate different group sizes. You might want to include larger tables that can seat 10 to 12 people, which are well suited for hosting functions, as well as tables or booths that can seat smaller, more intimate groups of two to four students—so that students can interact with their close friends in a more relaxed manner.

Consider offering a variety of heights as well. Taller bistro tables and stools give students additional options for sitting comfortably and eating/study counters that run along the length of a wall or around a support column are also becoming popular. Students can use these spaces to set up their laptops and eat while they work.

rendering of food court design
Food Court Rendering created by School Specialty® Projects By Design®

Design with flexibility and versatility in mind.

To get the most value out of your cafeteria, it should be a multi-use space that supports multiple activities. When meals aren’t being served, can it double as a study center, lounge area, or learning commons? Can you host community functions in your cafeteria to raise more revenue?

Think about all the ways you might use the space, and then plan your design to accommodate these various functions. Using modular tables that can be configured in many ways makes it simple to convert the space from one use to another. Make sure they are on casters, so they can be moved around easily. When purchasing large tables, consider models that can be folded up and stored.

flexible learning space with tables and stools and PE equipment
This is The Lab learning space at Dallas Hybrid Preparatory at Stephen J. Hay School in Dallas, Texas. It was designed to flex throughout the day, from lunch to robotics, study, and even PE.
Interior design and project management by School Specialty® Projects By Design® Dallas, Texas team.

Pay attention to movement and flow.

To enhance your cafeteria’s potential for building community, plan the space in a way that facilitates movement and social interaction. Make sure there are clear walkways for students and staff to circulate around the room; tables should be placed with at least three to four feet of clearance between them. Think about the flow of traffic as well and create enough space for lunch lines and food service.

Consider the technology infrastructure.

To make your cafeteria functional for learning or studying, consider how you can make electrical outlets readily available for students to plug in their digital devices. For instance, you could embed outlets in the floor, or choose tables and bench seating with outlets built into the furniture. If you integrate power into the tabletops and seating, then students won’t trip on power cords—and they won’t be limited in their choice of where to sit.

Rendering of cafeteria space design with power tower to power laptop
Cafeteria Space Rendering created by School Specialty® Projects By Design®

Think about incorporating outdoor spaces.

If your cafeteria is accessible to the school grounds, think about creating an outdoor courtyard or seating area. Research indicates there are clear educational and health-related benefits to spending time outside. For instance, breathing fresh air can clear students’ minds and help them think by increasing the amount of oxygen their brains receive. Being outside can also reduce stress and improve students’ emotional well-being, and studies have shown that children with ADHD respond positively to spending time in natural settings.

When furnishing outdoor dining spaces, use seating that is secure, weather-resistant and designed specifically for outdoor use, such as thermoplastic tables with attached benches that can’t be removed.

rendering of outdoor meeting and cafeteria space design
Outdoor Eating and Meeting Space Rendering created by School Specialty® Projects By Design®

Smart cafeteria design

With the right approach, you can create a modern school cafeteria that students actually want to spend time in, leading to a stronger sense of community and more opportunities for learning.

To learn how the School Specialty Team can help you design, furnish, and equip future-ready inviting cafeteria spaces that serve multiple purposes, please contact your School Specialty Representative.

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Dr. Sue Ann Highland

Dr. Sue Ann Highland

Sue Ann Highland, PhD, is the National Education Strategist for School Specialty. She has more than 25 years of experience as an educator, administrator, and consultant with school systems across the United States, with broad expertise in designing and creating highly effective learning environments.

Read more by Dr. Sue Ann Highland–>

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