Fussy eater lunchboxes win or fail
Many parents are very uncomfortable telling me what they put in their child’s lunchbox. Even though my job is to understand fussy eating challenges and then support parents to help their children eat more widely, still, the question “what goes in the lunchbox?” produces discomfort.
Today I’d like to approach lunchboxes from a different angle and one that may be helpful for many parents of fussy eaters. If you’d like practical advice I have written on that previously and will link to those articles at the end.
Society has a lot to answer for! Eating challenges are not framed in the same way as reading or talking issues.
Other parents, professionals and family frequently don’t see fussy eating as a childhood problem to be overcome with loving support.
Instead, it is often the focus of finger pointing, guilt and shame.
But what goes in your child’s lunchbox is between you and them. Not the school, not the other parents and not your friends and family.
Why the lunchbox is not a fail
Judging our parenting by the quality of the food in our child’s lunchbox is unhelpful. Although we may not do this overtly, there is often that thought in the back of the mind.
This is the reason parents are uncomfortable telling me what’s in the box. They don’t want to say as they feel it reflects badly on their parenting. But does it?
I have older teens and it has not always been plain sailing. When they have done something less than ideal, my first instinct is to wring my hands and think “oh no, how have I messed up so badly?”.
The mum guilt is real. It’s normal to jump straight to the “it’s all my fault”. It’s also common for us to globalize the problem – my child did this one ‘bad’ thing so they are terrible/I’m an awful parent/everything is a disaster.
But none of those things are true. It’s helpful to step back and:
1. Remind ourselves of all the amazing things our child can do and all the ways, that they delight us.
2. The things we excel in as a parent.
3. Remember that what they eat may have nothing to do with our parenting and definitely doesn’t define them.
Why lunches may be challenging
1. Away from home – when our child is in a new environment it can often be more difficult to eat.
Change in routines/rules/atmosphere or just not being in their safe, controlled environment can make things more challenging.
2. The environment – schools and kindys are not always great environments for eating:
i) They are full of friends. Spending time with friends often aces eating, especially if eating is not our priority.
ii) They are full of distractions. Being focused on eating may not be easy with so many other things going on, many of which are more exciting than eating.
iii) There are handbrakes on eating. Everything from the noise, to the pressure to eat quickly or consume one thing before another can make eating more difficult.
3. The overwhelm – being at school/kindy provides all sorts of sensory inputs. For children who have sensory sensitivities, or even those who are less outgoing, these environments can be overwhelming. If food is not your comfy space it can easily be affected.
Things to think about
Acknowledge that lunches are going to be more of a challenge. If we feel guilty, frustrated or worried we will communicate that to our child. Our worry then becomes their worry.
If we judge the quality of our parenting, or their day by whether their lunch is eaten or not we are focusing on the wrong thing. Our child could have an excellent day and have eaten one bite of the sandwich and half a muesli bar.
Is this ideal? No. But the sum of their day is more than what they have eaten.
Not checking what has been eaten as first port of call helps to prevent our focus being side-tracked by the lunchbox win or fail.
Similarly, it’s okay for them to finish what’s in their lunchbox for afternoon tea, but it’s important that this doesn’t feel like a judgement.
I don’t know what to put in it
Parents often get demoralized as either they are stuck sending the same 5 things every day, or they are fighting to get anything eaten.
1. If things are getting eaten – fed is best! It’s important that our child eats at school/kindy if possible:
i) They need the calories and food intake to balance sugar levels, increase concentration and help with moods.
ii) If we consistently don’t eat, we can inadvertently stop the body giving cues that it’s hungry – which exacerbates the problem.
Therefore if our child is eating, even if it’s not the foods that we would like them to be taking then it’s important to see this as a win.
Rather than despairing because they are taking yet another honey sandwich, it’s better to reframe this as “my child eats every day, so they are getting enough energy to power them through the day”.
If you are stuck on the same honey sandwich, then rotating options on the days they are at home is important. Teaching them to eat different foods begins at home. It is also far easier to manage a food refusal at home than when they are away from us.
2. If they are not eating – the core goal is to encourage our child to eat at school. This is not always easy as they are often in the habit of not eating so kickstarting that can be a challenge.
Some helpful tactics:
i) Take away all pressure to perform. As discussed, if the lunchbox comes back full this is not a bad reflection on either you or them.
ii) Send less. This is always worth a try. Often a lunchbox with multiple options is overwhelming. Yes, offering 75 different things is the normal response as “there is bound to be something in there they’ll eat”.
The converse is often true. They open the box and feel overwhelmed so eat nothing. Send 3 options and see what happens!
iii) Talk to their teacher. Do they know why this is happening? If they don’t, they probably should! If there are reasons, there are usually solutions.
iv) Practice eating from the lunchbox at home. Take the lunch box into the garden, to the park, for example, and test things out. See if you can figure out ways you can make this easier.
If you’d like some practical tips on improving the chance of the lunchbox coming back empty: https://theconfidenteater.com/blog/other/help-your-child-eat-from-the-school-kindy-lunchbox/
If you’d like some lunchbox ideas: https://theconfidenteater.com/blog/our-food/30-school-lunchbox-ideas-for-fussy-eaters-and-picky-eaters/
Please get in touch if you’d like extra support as I know it can be really stressful. You do not need to do this alone!
Judith, MA Cantab (Cambridge University), Post Grad Dip Psychology (Massey University), 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.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/