5 reasons why your kid isn’t eating lunch at school (and how to fix it)

Is your little one coming home with a full lunch bag everyday? Here are "secrets" from a former lunch lady that might explain why your kid isn't eating lunch at school.

illustration of two hands with an open lunch box, why your kid isn't eating lunch at school

Illustration & hand lettering: Coreena Lewis

I’ve watched little fingers peel back the foil of a yogurt container only to push aside the whole pot moments later; I’ve seen sandwiches bitten into twice and then tossed as garbage. I’ve sighed at the sight of whole apples—smooth and unblemished—shoved back into lunch boxes without a second thought.

While my daughter was a student at our local elementary school, I ran the nutrition program there, and for years I observed the kids in our lunchroom. A lot of food goes to waste, and as a parent, I hate that as much as you do. I’m here to share a few insights into what goes wrong and how to fix it.

1. “I wasn’t hungry.”

The problem: Kids can switch from announcing “I’m starving!” all day long to insisting “I’m not hungry!” at mealtimes and leave you scratching your head as to why. In the lunchroom, when I saw a kid picking at their food, I’d sometimes venture over for a chat to see what was up, and I discovered many different and legitimate reasons for appetite loss.

The fix: Start by simply asking your kid, without unleashing your frustration, why they aren’t hungry at lunchtime. Is your child feeling distracted or anxious? Perhaps they’re worried about a friendship or a test. For emotional causes, if you can figure out the problem, it’ll be easier to take steps to solve it—or at least make it loom less large—by giving your kid the chance to talk things through.

The next step is to take stock of what you’re packing for lunch. Is it too much? Kids often set food aside just because the portion looks overwhelming. Or, if there’s a mid-morning snack program at the school, that might be filling up then. Try packing lunch with your child the night before to get the servings about right. You can cut nutrient-dense foods like veggies, cheese and fruits into smaller pieces so your kid can pick away and still get a healthy lunch. With any luck, they’ll snack on the leftovers on the way home from school, too.

2. “The lunch room is too noisy.”

The problem: Lunchtime is the sole time of day when kids from all classes and grades get to hang out together in one big space. Of course there’s going to be lots of talking. It’s often extremely loud in school lunchrooms, and more sensitive kids can become distracted or anxious amid all the screeching and shouting.

The fix: This is a tough one, because it will take a long-term approach and some collaboration between your family, other parents and the staff at your kid’s school to make changes.

Each school has its own unique restrictions and possibilities, so you’ll need to get creative when proposing possible solutions. We addressed this problem at our school by creating a second lunchroom in an unused classroom for the younger students. The noise levels dropped dramatically. Consider asking your principal if there’s another space they could offer to students who’d prefer to eat in a “quiet room.”

Alternatively, ask if lunchtimes can be staggered for kids of different age groups. Group A can have outdoor time first, while Group B eats lunch. Halfway through the period, Group B can go outdoors and Group A can come in to eat.

If neither of these solutions is possible, then it might be time to gather volunteers—with the school’s blessing—to make acoustic sound panels using frames, soundproof insulation and repurposed blankets or quilts in fun patterns and bright colours. Hang these on the lunchroom walls to help absorb some of the noise.

3. “I wanted to eat lunch, but couldn’t get at it!”

The problem: Too often, I’ve seen children struggle to open food storage containers. If there isn’t a lunch supervisor or monitor that notices, and your child isn’t comfortable asking for help, whatever you packed in that container will go uneaten.

The fix: Before investing money in lunch boxes and food storage containers, make sure the little person who will be using them can get them open (and closed again) . There are many options available today from kitchen shops, hardware stores and online.

Leak-proof screw-top containers and Thermos flasks work well; just be careful not to tighten the lids too much when you pack lunch. Bento boxes are a great option too—there’s only one lid to open, and the boxes are split into multiple sections. Be sure to pick one where each section and the main lid are all leak-proof. Or consider containers that come with a four-sided lid-lock system: They are leak-proof, thanks to a silicone seal, easy to snap open, and sold in a variety of shapes and sizes.

4. “I didn’t have enough time.”

The problem: A surprising number of Canadian public schools don’t have a designated lunchroom, and that can have a huge impact. At our school, lunch was set up in the gymnasium, right before the bell rang. Our caretaker would race in as soon as gym class had finished and set up folding tables. The moment lunch was done, each table had to be washed, sanitized and stashed away, and the floor had to be mopped before the next gym class began. With all that set-up, clear-up and cleanup, there was precious little time to actually eat up. And in some schools, kids are allocated just 10 to 15 minutes for lunch before being hustled outside into the schoolyard. I’m all for fresh air and exercise, but digestion matters too, and in this scenario, slower eaters don’t stand a chance.

The fix: Alert your school to the problem—it likely won’t be news to them—that the kids are being rushed through lunch. Suggest that a table be assigned where slower eaters can sit longer. If the room serves more than one purpose, this table will be the last one the caretaker cleans.

Sitting at this table should be a choice, not a punishment or cause for shame, so ask that it always be a welcome space for all. And something to keep in mind: If your school has volunteers participating in its lunch program, ask if these parents can keep the remaining kids company while the lunch monitors are outside, and kitchen staff and caretakers are busy cleaning up. It will make for a nicer vibe.

5. “My lunch was gross!”

The problem: You’ve packed a lunch full of fresh and healthy foods your kid loves—you are a star! But hours later, in the lunchroom, the vibrant meal you put together may well be soggy, squished and definitely not Pinterest material. Once a lunch box has been turned upside down, bumped about in a backpack and left sitting for hours in a warm cubby, you’d be surprised how sorry it can look.

The fix: Ask your kid exactly what’s different about their favourite foods at lunchtime. Maybe the yogurt is curdling outside the fridge, the sandwiches are coming apart or the string cheese is getting sweaty. Keep the conversation positive so you can gather all the information you need.

You can buy ice packs or freeze juice boxes if your child prefers certain items served cool rather than at room temperature. If it’s the look of packed foods that’s jarring, there are often tricks you can use, such as using penne or rotini instead of spaghetti in favourite pasta dishes because the smaller noodles don’t end up in a clumpy tangle.

More robust foods fare better in the lunch box—think mandarin oranges over easily bruised bananas or wraps stuffed with leftover stewed meats over flimsy cheese-and-tomato sandwiches.

Rummage through the pantry and fridge together, and list the foods they’d rather not take to school even though they love them at home. The more you involve your child, the more you’ll learn and the less you’ll need to worry about lunchtime.

Read more:
35 days of school lunch recipes
5 biggest school snack questions answered
10 super easy portable hot lunch recipes

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