Lunchbox shame and shaming
Many parents who have a picky eater feel uncomfortable about what goes into the lunchbox. Some are even uncomfortable detailing to me what they put in there. They do not need anyone to criticize what is happening as they feel enough guilt/stress/worry themselves.
Recently there have been a series of media articles with parents criticised about what goes into the lunchbox. I could jump on my soapbox and rage about this for hours, but that’s not productive!
What I will say is to think of the lunchbox like an iceberg. It gives you only a very small glimpse into what is happening for that child and that family.
Instead of raging I would love to discuss the lunchbox of a picky eater and pull out some key points to bear in mind and some advice as to what may be helpful.
Suggestions for a picky eaters lunchbox?
1. Eating. Firstly, are they eating? I have many families who have a child who struggles to eat at all when away from home. Some children have never eaten at kindy/school.
Getting used to eating regularly is the number one priority. Our body is routine and habit driven so unfortunately when we are not used to eating, we are less likely to eat.
Often we even stop getting hunger cues when we consistently don’t eat.
This can become a viscous cycle when we don’t eat because we’re not hungry, but then don’t create habits of hunger because we’re not eating.
Finding something that our child happily eats is a priority even if that may not be top of the nutritional tree (shamers be damned). If they are eating very little then starting with one thing and building up to more is where I’d be aiming.
Once our child is used to eating at lunch it gets easier.
2. Volume. Often, very little is eaten from the lunchbox. To be honest, this is a challenge for many parents, regardless as to whether they have a picky eater or not.
Frequently, children have far more important and fun things to focus on than lunches, especially if they are not particularly comfortable around food.
This can be exacerbated by the way that lunchtimes are managed, especially at schools. Not being able to play until after eating, for example, is not helpful. Many children would rather play/hang out with friends than eat.
I know that when we are trying to increase volume eaten, or even encourage our child to eat at all, it’s tempting to put a range of different options in the lunchbox. We feel the more choice, the easier it is for them to find something they like.
To a degree, this is true, but I find the opposite often happens. A food hesitant child opens the lunchbox and thinks OMG how am I ever going to eat all of this? Often, it’s overwhelming.
Paring it back to 3 choices may be worth a whirl. I know you’re probably thinking but then they won’t eat enough. But if they are not eating enough now, isn’t it worth a whirl?
3. Sandwich. Many picky eaters will not eat a sandwich. Or eat the same sandwich year in year out and start to not be enthused about the sandwich.
This is really common behaviour, for example, eating a Vegemite sandwich for months and then not wanting it, but refusing any other filling at the same time. It makes sense, as the Vegemite sandwich is comforting, but at the same time pour child has become bored with it!
I always advise us to look for option B. That is often something a little outside of the box. If sandwiches no longer rock, what else can we offer? I know it’s easy to think ‘well, they won’t eat anything else’.
I hear that frequently and if I were working with a family in this situation some of the starting suggestions I’d make would be:
i) Looking for bread-type things that may also be a hit. Croissants, rolls, scones, wraps.
ii) Muffins or banana bread. Before you think this should be an automatic no for lunch as it’s a snack item, let us think a little outside of the square.
If we put a home-made muffin up against a Vegemite sandwich in terms of nutrition, then there are positives for both. Muffins contain flour (just like bread), plus egg and often milk.
If our child only eats chocolate muffins, then that’s where I’d start. If it gets them excited about eating lunch again, great. Once they are eating again, it’s easier to make changes to the offering.
iii) Pancakes. Egg, flour, milk. Perfect for a filling lunch. We can roll up or cut into shapes.
iv) There is no reason for it to be something we traditionally think of as a substantial ‘lunch’ option. Some loose ham, some cheese or a piece of chicken, for example.
v) Leftovers. Pasta, rice, pizza, chicken nuggets or another favourite. Either cold or warmed and put into a food thermos.
4. Comfort. Often what’s happening (or not happening) is due to a lack of comfort. How can we build that for our child?
i) Sometimes that is about reducing volume (see point 2).
ii) It may be about getting our child more involved in packing the lunchbox. It’s harder to complain when you have put the food in there yourself! Packing stations can help with this, for example, having several baskets and choosing one item from each (so they don’t pack 3 packets of biscuits).
iii) Making everything as easy as possible. For example, bite-sized is easier than big.
iv) Understanding what’s going wrong. Sometimes it is about external factors like noise, being rushed or feeling under pressure to eat quickly. There may be solutions once we know what the problems are.
Only looking at what’s taking place in the lunchbox, doesn’t give an understanding of what is happening for that child. They may have a chocolate covered muesli bar, a bag of pretzels and a muffin, and that is a HUGE step forwards because they are consistently eating where before they weren’t eating anything.
I also know many children who eat a great breakfast and dinner, but find lunchboxes challenging and their box is a bad indication of their overall diet.
If we have a child that is uncomfortable around food, it gives us empathy and understanding for what is in another lunchbox. I’m on a mission to change attitudes and educate, so parents with fussy eaters do not face censure, but instead find support.
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.
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/