Thousands of pupils will be offered a free school dinner in a bid to promote healthier menus.

Durham County Council's cabinet has approved recommendations aimed at providing more nutritious dinners and encouraging more youngsters to eat them rather than bringing a packed lunch a visiting the local chip shop.

In the wake of the controversy caused by TV chef Jamie Oliver's TV series about school dinners, which featured a Peterlee primary school, processed foods including Turkey Twizzlers were taken off the menu.

A working group review of meals provision, started long before the furore, proposed taking such items off the menu, giving pupils a greater say in school meals and encouraging governors to have greater role.

Cabinet member for education Neil Foster said a "more traditional, more nutritious menu '' was being introduced.

"To launch the new traditional menu we will have a free meal day for all the schools that are inside the contract. No pupil on that day will have to pay for the meal.''

He added that funding for the initiative was coming from primary care trusts and meals provider Scholarest, whose contract is due to be extended, would be helping to promote it.

Working group chairman John Dormer said during the review members found evidence "that there had been a decline in the service and that the numbers and take-up had reduced.

"I have had more approaches on this subject than any other,'' he said, adding that meals were a responsibility of schools.