Registered dietitian Jennifer House says it’s common for children to choose gabbing over gobbling, especially when lunch is followed by recess. Kids are often easily excitable and distracted.
“It’s a big social time — they want to de-stress from their lessons and relax with their friends, and they’re eager to get out to the playground,” says House, who works with young families through her Calgary-based company, First Step Nutrition. Pickiness and peer pressure also play roles in the uneaten school lunch phenomenon; another possibility is a child asserting her power not to eat.
“A lot of kids have their parents nagging them to eat: ‘Finish your plate, eat your vegetables!’ And then when they get to school and it’s a room of 25 kids and one teacher, there’s nobody standing over them, so they may take a little liberty at school and don’t eat,” says House.
If your child is skipping her daily bread, here are some tips to get her back on track.
Talk about it
Use this opportunity to teach kids the value of food. Instead of making it into a battle, say, “Eating this food will give you more energy and you’ll learn better in school.”
Have kids help
“Even a six-year-old can help make her lunch,” says House, adding that if she makes it, she’s more likely to eat it. Try preparing lunches the night before, right after dinner and before clean up; this way, you can use up leftovers, the kids can help and you won’t have to clean up twice. At the very least, ask children to add some lunch items to the grocery list; it will make them more involved.
Explore the sleep-eat connection
Janey Reilly, a children’s sleep consultant, says poor sleep can lead to unhealthy food choices. (Sleep-deprived kids will grab the fruit bar or cookies first for faster, high-fat, high-sugar fuel, and will ignore the turkey sandwich.) Elementary school-aged kids need 10 to 11 hours of sleep a night.
Mix it up
Pack leftover pasta or soup if the lunchroom has a microwave. Make sandwiches with bagels or tortillas instead, and go beyond deli meat with tuna or egg salad, or try pea butter spreads (these are nut-free peanut butter substitutes made out of brown peas). Veggies become more appealing with dip. If you don’t want your kid to eat her cookies first, don’t pack them at all, says House.
Don’t stress out
Sometimes children just aren’t hungry. “If they have a good breakfast and a good dinner,” explains House, “maybe that’s enough calories for them throughout the day. Kids don’t have to eat a big lunch.”
A version of this article appeared in our November 2012 issue with the headline “Lunch wars” (p.92).