School lunch letdown

The trouble with eating at school.

/p> Linden is in grade one. He takes his lunch to school every day — but he doesn’t eat it. Maybe a nibble here or there, that’s it. Liam, also six, is so picky about what he will eat at school that his mom declares, “Packed lunches and six-year-olds should never be mentioned in the same sentence!” Mitchell is eight and has a 45-minute bus ride to school. He often goes through the only bit of lunch he will eat — a cheese stick and a couple of cookies — before he even arrives at school. That old saying If the food is available, kids won’t starve themselves may be true, but it’s also true that kids will go hungry for the length of a school day, and come home, in Linden’s mother’s words, “a starving maniac.” So what’s going on?

There are several potential problems, says Toronto dietitian Susan Fyshe.

Problem: Picky eaters

If your child is picky at home, she’s going to be picky at school, says Fyshe. In fact, the problem may be worse at school because sitting in a lunch box for four hours can change food, no matter how carefully you pack it. Just the pent-up smell of a sandwich when it’s unwrapped can be seriously off-putting to a sensitive palate.

Strategies The only type of sandwich Liam would eat when he started school was peanut butter, and that’s not allowed at his school. It took a fair bit of experimenting to find that he would eat canned pasta (SpaghettiOs), unbuttered bread and yogurt. Liam’s mom has learned to let go of her preconceptions about variety and balance — just for this one meal — and give Liam what she knows he will eat.

Taking kids shopping with you and having them pick from among healthy options for their lunches is another way of increasing the chance that they’ll actually eat them, suggests Fyshe.

Problem: Lack of time

In many schools, kids get 15 to 20 supervised minutes to eat, and then are sent outside. “That’s in a distracting environment that’s very busy, with a lot of kids, a lot of movement, a lot of noise,” says Fyshe. “And at this age, some kids are slow eaters — they need a little time to see what’s in their lunch, get it unwrapped or opened, and sit down and eat.”

Mitchell has an extra challenge — he’s in a portable and the washroom is in the school. When his mom asks him why he didn’t eat, his answer is: “I had to go to the bathroom.” That means a change from inside to outside shoes (and maybe getting into a coat), walking to the other side of the school and back, and changing shoes again. If there’s a friend on the way to chat with, that’s more time.

Strategies This is a tough one. Food that is easy to open (no packaging requiring teeth or scissors to open) and eat (orange segments rather than an orange that needs peeling) will help, and so might a scheduled washroom break that’s separate from lunchtime. But this is primarily a supervision issue — young kids probably do need a little more time to manage their lunches.

Problem: The social butterfly

“Liam is a socializer,” says his mom. “He will completely forget to eat, even when the other kids are eating and the lunch monitor reminds him. He just loves to talk.”

Strategies Make lunch interesting enough to capture their attention, suggests Fyshe. “Being sociable is a terrific quality, but you want to make lunch appealing enough that they’ll hold off for 10 minutes and eat.” Food that’s in small, munchable pieces — like cheese cubes and crackers as opposed to a cheese sandwich — allows kids to eat and socialize at the same time.

While picky eaters may demand the same lunch over and over, other kids just get plain sick of opening their lunch bag and seeing the same old stuff.

Strategies Most seven-year-olds do not want anything “weird,” but a little variety and the odd surprise or special treat are appreciated. Some kids love leftover dinner in a Thermos. Some will gobble up meat and little pitas, when they would probably reject a very similar sandwich.

Be on the lookout for new menu ideas (see Looking for a lunch lift below) and then ask your child’s opinion or test drive them on a weekend before actually taking the plunge.

Looking for a lunch lift?

We’re here to help!
• Sign up for the What’s for Lunch? Lunchtime Planner. You’ll receive 10 weeks of lunch menu ideas and recipes delivered right to your email inbox.

• Get some non-sandwich ideas from Naked Lunch.

• Health Canada’s Canadian Health Network offers lunch tips for parents.

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