FREE school dinners are available to more than a million children across the UK, but some parents are missing out by not applying.

The meals are available to every child in the first three years of primary school, regardless of what the parents earn, if they go to a government-funded school.

But the majority of councils The Sun checked also offer free food for children in both primary and secondary school, if parents are on a low income.

And given the average family spends £437 on lunches per child over the course of a school year, if you qualify for free meals that could be a big saving.

The Department for Education (DfE) told us 1.28million pupils in primary school (15.8 per cent) claimed free meals by the beginning of this year.

While almost 468,800 of those in those in secondary schools (14.1 per cent) received them.

The DfE wouldn't tell exactly how many more children are eligible but not claiming, although it estimates take-up is roughly 90 per cent.

In a survey of teachers by the National Education Union (NEU) and Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), 21 per cent believed some kids were missing out.

While charity Citizen's Advice estimated in May that 750,000 kids in secondary school alone are entitled to free meals.

In total, there are currently more than 4.7million pupils in government-funded primary schools and more than 3.3million kids at secondary schools.

Who is entitled to free school meals in the UK?

Under the universal free school meal system, every child in reception, year 1 and year 2 in England and Wales is automatically entitled to a free hot lunch.

This is regardless of their family's household income and has been the case since 2014.

Parents can also apply for free meals for older kids if they claim state benefits, while child asylum seekers are also granted free lunches.

Those eligible include people who are paid any of the below:

  • Income support
  • Income-based jobseeker's allowance
  • Income-related employment and support allowance
  • The guarantee element of pension credit
  • Child tax credit – as long you’re not also entitled to working tax credit and earn no more than £16,190 a year before tax
  • Working tax credit
  • Universal Credit – if you applied on or after 1 April 2018 your household income is less than £7,400 a year (after tax and not including any benefits you get)

Children who receive these benefits themselves instead of through a parent or guardian can also qualify for free school meals.

While those who are younger than the compulsory age for starting school but in full-time education can get it too.

If your children qualify for the universal school meals and you get any of the above benefits, you should tell your council about it as your school will get extra funding of £2.30 per meal.

Don't live in England or Wales? Here are the policies for Northern Ireland and Scotland.

How do I apply for free school lunches for my kids?

If you're in the first three years of primary school then you'll automatically qualify for free lunches.

If you qualify for a free school lunch, you'll need to let your council know first so it can get extra funding from the government.

Simply click on the website here and type in your postcode to be redirected to your local council's website and apply.

The majority of them will ask you to fill in an online form.

Depending on your children's age, some councils will ask you to contact the school directly.

And it depends on the council how quickly you'll get the perk after applying.

Bear in mind that this freebie is different to the school uniform grant, as that's a voluntary sum councils will give you towards your clothing costs.

What do you get?

Food served in schools must meet certain food standards so that children have healthy, balanced diets.

It means they have to provide:

  • High-quality meat, poultry or oily fish
  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Bread, other cereals and potatoes

There also can't be drinks with added sugar, crisps, chocolate or sweets in school meals and vending machines.

And schools can't serve more than two portions of deep-fried, battered or breaded food a week.

Hard-up Brits can get up to £650 free cash for school uniforms, shoes and transport for their children.

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Don't qualify for free school meals? A savvy mum has told us how she spends under £10 a week on 15 packed lunches.

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