6 Most Frequently Asked Questions on Handling School Lunch

  September 11, 2018

This week is the second week of school for our district. If you are anything like me it means that you are full force back into making school lunches. Without fail every night we forget to empty the lunchbox only to find spoiled food in the morning that has to be thrown out. One day we’ll remember.

Since it’s back to school time, the topic of school lunch has been coming up in client sessions, and even in some of the mommy groups. It’s one of those tough meals that can be hard to navigate at this time of year.  I’m going to address the most recent questions I have gotten.

Food Waste

Have you ever sent in food only to have it returned untouched? Often times your child will proclaim they “didn’t have time” (this is my daughters favorite line). Maybe they will tell you they didn’t like it or forgot to eat it. Do you worry about the waste in the lunchbox?

Recommendation: Don’t sweat it, it’s normal and it happens. As hard as it is to accept it, it’s one of the natural parts of sending your child to school with lunch. They will eat the foods that they are truly in the mood for and leave the food they aren’t. This is part of your child learning to be an intuitive eater.

“Getting”  Your Picky Eater to Eat What is in Their Lunchbox

I will start out by saying the most important factor of school lunch is that your child eats and is nourished. Children who are hungry will struggle with concentrating and learning. This is not the meal to try  to “get” them to eat something they don’t typically like or want.

Recommendation: Serve your children what they like for lunch. My motto is, “Don’t challenge your child when they aren’t in your presence.”  If you have a picky eater – it never hurts to send a new or familiar food in the hopes they might try it when they are at school with their friends, but you’ll have to be okay with it coming home untouched. While I have had some kiddos who have explored new foods while at school because there is less pressure, it’s not common. More times that not a child is going to eat the foods they enjoy more than those they do not.

For the most part though I would recommend allowing your child to have food that you know they enjoy and can fill up. It will make them most successful at filling up and enjoying their meal.

So what happens when all your child wants is sweets or snacks in their lunch?

As the parent you are in charge of what to serve. As the parent you take this role because you have the ability to look at the bigger picture and see that your child is getting variety throughout the day. So yes, I’m saying it is absolutely okay to send the sweet and/or snacks into their lunch boxes. It will help them to stay full for longer and give them energy to concentrate and learn.

Fruit and veggies are relatively low in calories meaning they won’t keep your kids full for long. They provide vitamins and minerals and are a great addition to a lunch box, but they aren’t known for keeping them full for an extended amount of time. They are a quick source of energy.

Is it Okay to Ask My Child What They Want?

While I mentioned above I really do believe that it’s our job to decide what to serve our children, I know children LOVE and benefit from having some autonomy around their eating. When we pack lunches, unlike at home, we can’t offer the food family style. This is why giving them choices is a great idea.

Recommendation: Rather than opening the cabinets and saying, “What do you want for lunch?” which can feel too overwhelming for a child, instead give them choices. If you know you are going to send them with a fruit you can ask, would you like apples or grapes today? Would you like carrots or cucumber? Would you like chocolate chip cookies or oatmeal raisin? Would you like Doritos or Potato Chips? Would you like a turkey sandwich or ham sandwich? You get the idea.

Giving your child some autonomy over their foods choices is another way to help them to learn to be intuitive about their eating and pick foods they are in the mood for. Keep in mind if you do have a picky eater e.g., if they don’t like apples or grapes, just because they pick one doesn’t mean they will actually eat it.

Remember children can get sick of eating the same food all time, changing it up is a great idea in preventing food fatigue.

What Exactly Does a Balanced Lunch Look Like?

As a general rule of thumb a balanced meal would look like having protein, carbohydrate and fat. However, I typically plan my daughters lunch as: Main Dish, Sweet Snack, Crunchy Snack and Fruit or Veggie

Just a few examples:

  1. Sandwich, fruit leather, chips, apple
  2. Mac n’ Cheese, cookies, crackers, carrots and dip
  3. Chicken Nuggets, pistachios, peaches, graham crackers
  4. Pasta with meat sauce, veggie straws, fun size candy, cucumbers and dip

I would say rarely does everything get eaten. However, I recommend sending too much and something coming home than not enough and your child is still hungry. I have had clients who reported they was often still hungry after lunch and was often borrowing money from friends to get extra snacks or asking friends for snack. I always check in each day with my daughter to make sure she had enough at lunch.

Supporting Your Intuitive Eater at School (where they may not understand)

This is a hard one for me – I can fully acknowledge the school system does not mean any harm, but they are heavily influenced by society to police what our children are eating and educate them about food. Unfortunately, these lessons are often not developmentally appropriate and food policing does more harm than good.

Recently a mom wrote in a group I’m in about a school director who keeps editing and omitting items from her son’s lunch due to her believing the food is not healthy for him. I’ve also encountered children being told they can’t eat one food before they have more of another food (i.e. they have to eat their sandwich before they can have their cookies). Also, I’ve heard of parents being sent home with a naughty letter regarding the food they have sent in with their children to eat.

As the parent – you are 100% in charge of what you serve your children. Lunch at school is only one meal out of the entire day. It would be unfair to judge one meal and assume that is all the child will eat in a day. As I talked about above, if you have a picky eater, a child with food allergies, or limited income, you may have limited amounts of foods you can send in with your child. It is okay for you to send in with what you want.

Recommendation: I do recommend addressing any concerns with your school. One of the most helpful things I have used is the Lunch Box Cards by the Feeding Doctor – I have included these in my daughters lunch box for several years now. It allows her to help advocate for herself when she feels uncomfortable, while allowing the parent to support their child with this adult issue.

Remember, school lunch is a great opportunity for children. It’s a time of them to practice having more independence around their eating. Part of raising an intuitive eater is serving them the food and allowing them to listen to their body to eat it.

I’d love to know, what obstacles are you struggling with around school lunch?



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