Help your picky eater eat from their school/kindy lunchbox
Judith is an internationally certified nutritional therapist and AOTA accredited picky eating advisor. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
Lunchboxes returning unscathed is an ongoing problem for many parents. All that time and energy invested, only to have it returned often as full as when it left. If you have a picky eater, this of course is magnified.
There are many reasons why lunches are or are not eaten though and some of that definitely sits with the systems in place at schools and preschools. I often either shake my head or cheer at how educational centres operate around food.
Helpful practices at school/kindy
1. Sitting communally with adults role modeling.
2. Focus on the meal rather than the eating.
3. A low-pressure environment.
4. Defined eating windows rather than constant snacking.
Unhelpful practices at school/kindy
1. A limited time to eat.
2. Children not being able to play until they have eaten.
3. Pushing children to eat – especially specific foods.
4. Children able to graze throughout the day.
5. Providing snack foods late in the afternoon.
6. Children eating unsupervised.
How to help a child eat from their school/kindy lunchbox
As a caregiver there are so many variables that our outside of our control. Fortunately, there are also many ways we can be supportive:
1. Involving our child in the contents. Depending on their age and stage, we can have them helping with the menu planning, the shopping, and the packing.
Participation can make a difference as it gives a child investment in the process.
2. Eating is better than not eating! I know many picky eaters who skip lunches on a frequent or even every-day basis. Not refueling the tanks does leave us with less energy in the afternoon and that affects mood and concentration. It also returns a child to us who is ravenous and often out of kilter.
I have also seen this become a pattern. A child doesn’t eat and so gets used to not eating and because of this, receives less physiological cues so is less likely to eat. It becomes a vicious cycle.
When I am working with families where a child is consistently not eating lunch, it’s one of the first goals. How do we make it easy for them to put something in the tummy?
3. Bookending. This can be a short-term solution, although I still feel the focus on getting lunch eaten is primary. In the interim however, supporting our child to have a big breakfast and ensuring a nutritious afternoon tea can help.
It’s important when doing this though that we don’t get to the point where we are desperately pressuring our child to have a huge breakfast, this too can backfire.
4. ‘Anchor’ foods. Opening the box and seeing a food there that is a favourite is comforting. Psychologically finding a food that a child looks forward to can help get over the initial challenge of eating in a public space with distractions and away from the support of home.
5. Ensuring that what we pack is what gets delivered. Although we may prepare a lunchbox worthy of a five-star chef, once it arrives at it’s destination it can look totally different. Being upside down in the bag can mean all the foods get jumbled together – often an automatic ‘no’ for a picky eater.
Food touching can be a make or break in general so finding a box that enables separation, or even putting foods into smaller containers within a bigger container can help a fussy eater.
Even though foods are not ticking boxes for a child, they may not communicate this effectively. The sandwich might be soggy, the apple brown or the yoghurt warm. Many of these challenges can be overcome with a bit of planning and can be the difference between a ‘yes’ and an ‘I don’t think so’.
6. Make it fun. Don’t feel like you have to do a full scene from Frozen but using a cookie cutter for cheese or sandwiches generates more interest and supports eating. We can write on a banana or mandarin skin or pop a hand-written note or drawing into the box. Maybe even a ‘dad joke’. If our child looks forward to opening the box, we are winning.
7. Can we serve the same foods but in a different format? For example, putting cheese, ham, and bread on a skewer instead of together as a sandwich. Having slight differences, even with the same foods helps to keep the lunchbox seeming different and piques curiosity.
8. Breakfast for lunch. Breakfast is often an easy meal for a picky eater. Some of this is due to the hunger produced by an overnight ‘fast’ but it’s also a function of the foods we serve in the mornings. For a fussy eater breakfast foods usually tick all the boxes. Carbohydrates which are favoured, packet foods that make them predictable, and none of the weird stuff and pressure that creeps into dinner.
What about sending breakfast for lunch? A yoghurt parfait for example. Pottle of yoghurt with some crumbled cereal to put on top. What about a Weetbix spread with peanut butter and jam, with a mini carton of milk. Or even some milk in one tub and some cereal in another to mix at lunchtime.
9. Check what the problem is. Tastes change, especially with picky eaters and they omit to tell you that honey sandwiches are now a no! It could be that the food is not arriving as expected (see point 5), or perhaps it’s a challenge with the container that’s too hard to open, or it could be a range of external problems. It’s too noisy, the smells from other lunches are off-putting, our child feels uncomfortable eating in front of others. Knowing what the barriers are is the first step to resolving them.
10. Our attitude. A neutral approach with language and demeanor to lunchboxes and especially whether the contents get eaten is important. Showing our child how worried we are about them eating can make them more anxious about the whole process, or put pressure on them, which again reduces the chances of food being eaten. Minimal commentary is the best policy.
Comparing what our child eats with what we see in other children’s lunchboxes is like comparing the way they run or read, it makes no sense. Every child is different, and their capabilities develop at different times.
Although this can be a challenge, focusing on the positives really does help US. Instead of thinking ‘my child only eats this’, reframing and writing a list of everything they do eat and the possible combinations within that can be helpful.
If you’d like some help with building comfort levels around food, Winner Winner I Eat Dinner, does that in simple, manageable and gentle steps: https://theconfidenteater.com/winner-winner-i-eat-dinner/
Judith is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
Judith is also mum to two boys and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/