Objective The present study sought to explore the factors that influence registration for free school meals and the subsequent take-up following registration in England. Design The research design consisted of two phases, a qualitative research phase followed by an intervention phase. Findings are presented from the qualitative research phase, which comprised interviews with head teachers, school administrators, parents and focus groups with pupils. Setting The study took place in four primary schools and four secondary schools in Leeds, UK. Subjects Participants included head teachers, school administrators, parents and pupils. Results Findings suggested that parents felt the registration process to be relatively straightforward although many secondary schools were not proactive in promoting free school meals. Quality and choice of food were regarded by both pupils and parents as significant in determining school meal choices, with stigma being less of an issue than originally anticipated. Conclusions Schools should develop proactive approaches to promoting free school meals and attention should be given not only to the quality and availability of food, but also to the social, cultural and environmental aspects of dining. Processes to maintain pupils' anonymity should be considered to allay parents' fear of stigma.