The United Nations (UN) recognises free school meals as critical, yet widely disrupted by COVID-19. We investigate caregiver perceptions and responses to interruptions to the universal infant free school meal programme (UIFSM) in Cambridgeshire, England, using an opt-in online survey. From 586 responses, we find 21 per cent of respondents’ schools did not provide UIFSM after lockdown or advised caregivers to prepare packed lunches. Where provided, caregivers perceived a substantial decline in quality and variety of meals, influencing uptake. Direction to bring packed lunches, which caregivers reported to have contained ultra-processed foods of lower nutritional quality, influenced caregiver behaviour rather than safety concerns as claimed by industry. The quality and variety of meals, and school and government policy, had greater impact than concerns for safety. In the UK and at the international level, policymakers, local governments, and schools must act to reverse the trend of ultra-processed foods in packed lunches, while improving the perceived quality of meals provided at schools.