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“Help! My son won’t eat lunch at school!”

Posted by on May 15, 2012 in Blog Posts | 17 comments

“My son is just about to finish kindergarten and he’s struggled to eat lunch at school the whole year – he gets distracted easily, plays with his food, etc.  We’ve spent the whole year trying to let it be and relax about it, knowing that at first it was a new (distracting) environment, etc.  So far as I’m aware, his teacher doesn’t pressure them to eat.  His daycare provider picks him up after school and, if he’s hungry then, we’ve asked her to have him eat the food from his lunch box rather than giving him other foods instead.

In the last few weeks, he’s barely eating any lunch at all – he’s constantly saying that he’s hungry but doesn’t want to eat anything in his lunch, as he finds any possible reason (“it tastes funny!”  “The apple was a little brown!”) to not eat the foods we’ve given him, all of which we know he likes, or has enjoyed in the past.

My thoughts are that we’ll work with involving him more in his lunch prep/menu planning but it’s starting to drive me nuts!  Today he ate two slices of cucumber, a few crackers and…that was it.  He complained about being hungry until dinner, when he had half a bowl of soup, two pieces of bread, no coleslaw (he used to love coleslaw but refuses to eat it now, as with an increasing number of non-sweet foods) and said he was done.  Twenty minutes later, he’s complaining about still being hungry and wanting more to eat.

Honestly, I’m reaching the end of my tether.  It’s frustrating to buy food that then doesn’t get eaten and is wasted and it’s worrying that he’s reducing his once-varied diet so much.  He still eats a variety of foods but suddenly tomatoes in sauces, coleslaw, grapes, oranges, etc. that were once all on his menu are no longer there (in the last six months). Any suggestions would be very welcome!”

This is tough! One question I have is if his growth and nutrition baseline are adequate.If he’s staying on track with his growth and weight gain, there may not be much to worry about, though I know it’s awful to think of our little ones not eating a meal!  I wonder if  he is on the smaller side in general, so that maybe there has been increased attention to what and how much he is eating? It sounds like lunch was the starting point, and now the worry and struggle is beginning to affect your feeding relationship overall. Is he pushing his independence? Is he reacting to pressure that he eat a certain amount of fruits and veggies? For example, you say you’ve tried to be relaxed, and I believe you, but when you first pick him up, do you ask right away if he ate his lunch? Do you ask why not and try to convince him that he likes apples, and no, they aren’t brown? Some children, who may be more sensitive, or independent, and really want to do things on their own, find even questioning or praise to be a turn-off.

Are you familiar with and practicing the Division of Responsibility?

Try to find out if he is pushing back on pressure. Even praise, and certainly only offering him his lunch foods for snack can feel like pressure, and increase the battles and slow down his progress with eating. At Kindergarten, he should be coming out of the typical picky eating phase so common in children, so I am inclined to think that he is feeling pressured, or there is crossing of the lines of the DOR in terms of his eating.

The good news is, the school year is almost over. So, next year, you can start fresh. The bad news is, it sounds like this is becoming increasingly a major issue. Some general thoughts (since I don’t know the specifics.) You have to make him think you aren’t worried or thinking about what or how much he is eating at lunch. DON”T ask him what he ate or rifle through his lunch box first thing. I see parents do this all the time. Pretend it doesn’t matter. Give him the message that he can manage his eating, even if he is still learning right now.

Maybe a phase of being less hungry at lunch, or distracted, has now turned into something more: a power struggle, a way for him to engage and test limits and boundaries and independence… He has a power chip, your worry about his hunger and nutrition. A few thoughts to get the head-game out of it. Note, he may eat little at lunch, but with an adequate offering at breakfast and a planned snack, he will probably be just fine. Remember, if he’s drinking milk, he’ll get several ounces of protein and a little fat.

  • When he gets picked up at school, don’t give him what’s left from lunch, that makes too much focus on lunch, feels punitive, and becomes a battle point.
  • Plan on serving a balanced, and substantial sit down snack after school. Give him a few choices. Crackers with cream cheese, or cheddar with pear, oatmeal cookie with banana or apple slices… Ideally wait until he gets home, and have the childcare provider offer milk or water, a fruit or veggie, some fat source and carbs. Let him eat as much as he is hungry for.
  • Work on structure. He is offered a sit-down meal or snack every 2-4 hours. If he says he is hungry 20 minutes after a meal, that’s too bad. He’s trying to take over the WHEN piece of feeding. If you can be firm about the structure, and provide balanced options at meals and snacks and let him eat as much or as little as he wants (without pressure) he will figure it out.
  • Don’t wait to see if he’s hungry after school, plan on having a snack. That will also help with him whining that he’s hungry all afternoon. The snack after school should be balanced, and not favorite foods only, or “snack” foods. (See my short online video about snacks.)
  • Pack foods for lunch that are easy and quick to access, so he doesn’t have to spend time with complicated lids or wait for a teacher to open a container.
  • While involving him somewhat with lunch planning is fine, this is sometimes a false promise of hope. Moms tell me all the time that they involve their kids in shopping, cooking, even growing the darn food, and the kid still doesn’t eat it. Further, when kids are involved, this can feel like pressure. It also gives them power. “You chose those crackers, you have to eat them!” Many small kids don’t know what they will feel like eating in advance, so for the most part stick with your job of deciding what to offer. Also, if you make it a big deal, he knows how much it upsets you, and that often fuels a behavior. It’s not that he is being naughty, developmentally it’s his job.
  • Think outside the box. My M doesn’t like bread much, so I end up sending thermoses with microwaved peas, or edamame (shelled or not) or left-over stir-fry with rice. Sometimes it’s a handful of crackers and cheese, with rolled up turkey and a little container of miracle whip. I include a “treat” about half the time, a mini-snickers, or fruit chews. Maybe a slice or two of cheese, or Go-gurt. Sometimes foods are eaten, sometimes not.
  • Remember to keep offering all those great foods, like cole-slaw and apples and veggies and fruit, without pressure. When we try to get kids to eat more fruits and veggies, they tend to eat less. The best predictor of raising a child who will eat F and V, is if you enjoy and eat them yourself.

As for the food waste, it stinks. I know it. You might want to cut down on how much you pack for now until the issue is improving, or accept, as I tell my clients, more food waste now, and less later.

I hope this helps you think about this issue maybe in a new light. A great resource is Child of Mine, or Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. This fall, I am coming out with a book called Love Me Feed Me, and two adapted resources, including one covering these scenarios.

Good luck!

Parents, am I on track? Have you gone through this, what has helped?

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17 Comments

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  1. Heather

    We have been going through a similar thing with our son who is also a kindergartener. He often just picks at his lunch. He is a slow eater and easily distracted, and they don’t have that long of a lunch period. Here’s what we’ve been doing:

    Don’t make a big deal about it. No comments about what or how much of his lunch he ate. We asked a little at the beginning of the year and he would say he didn’t have time. I believe that is the biggest reason why he doesn’t eat much, because on Wednesdays (which is early release day so the lunch period is even shorter than usual) he has consistently eaten the least amount of his lunch.

    We use a Laptop Lunchbox, which has 4 small, unlidded containers that fit snugly inside a larger plastic box. We put something different in each container and make sure that some of the choices have protein and fat. We also send a small thermos of milk (I’ve debated this – does having easy liquid calories accessible make him less likely to eat his lunch? – but ultimately it’s more important to me that he gets fueled for his school day, especially if there is limited time for him to eat. He has sixteen other meals a week to eat a variety of food at home at a more relaxed pace.)

    We asked his teachers not to pressure him to use a fork – they were doing that at the beginning of the year when we would send noodles or tortellini, and it made him avoid those foods which are typically his favorites. The teachers have gone along with that, and don’t seem to pressure the kids to finish their lunches.

    I wonder if the original poster’s son is getting some “nutrition education” at school that is functioning as pressure to him to eat certain foods, and if he might be reacting against that.

    • katja

      I love your sleuthing! yes, utensils can slow kids down! I’ve tried eating pasta from a thermos, and it can be tricky! I’m glad they were responsive. I always wonder with those boxes if liquids would work. For example, if I pack tomatoes with a little balsamic, would the whole thing have balsamic on it by lunch??

    • Lee

      Help! I am having all the same problems with my daughter who was always a very picky eater. However, when she was an infant she ate all different types of jarred pureed foods (peas, carrots, squash, rice and lentils) and drank a soy formula. She transitioned to milk beautifully, but in the last year (she will be four in October) has given my husband and I a very hard time when it comes to drinking milk. In addition, foods she enjoyed (hummus, broccoli, carrots, kashi blueberry flakes cereal, earths best cookies ) she will no longer eat. She has eaten baked chicken cutlets, steamed vegetables (she is now only eating steamed peppers) and applesauce for the last TWO YEARS for dinner (yes, we have discussed this with the pediatrician and he is not too alarmed), she is giving us a terrible time eating breakfast in the morning (which results in a very whiny cranky mood), and will no loner eat the vegetable pizza she always ate for lunch. Help. We are at our wits end and are in the process of seeking out an occupational therapist since she pretty much refuses to try any new foods. She will be starting pre-k in two weeks and we are concerned that she will not make it through the day.

      • katja

        I’m so sorry you are struggling with this. It’s not an uncommon scenario, and the fact that she ate a great variety earlier is reassuring. I’d recommend starting with reading around on this blog, and reading Mealtime Hostage blog and joining her facebook support group. My book also covers why you may have gotten to this point, and how to transition away. I think it would be a good place to start. I would also be very cautious about pursuing therapy as I have had so many clients who have been harmed by coercive therapies. In chapter 3 and 4 of my book I go into how to find the right help if therapy is needed. Anxiety can also play a role, and for many children, any pressure or expectation, even nutrition talk, can make kids more reluctant. This is a complex topic, but please don’t give up hope. You are not alone! Though my book, Love Me, Feed Me, is “for” adoptive parents, it is essentially the same advice I share with all my clients. Most of the reviews on Amazon are from parents children of selective eaters. Good luck and keep us posted!

  2. Dana

    I had similar problems with my son in kindergarten last year- not enough time for lunch, easily distracted, hardly ate anything. I thought I was being relaxed but soon realized that either I was questioning him about his lunches or could be seen pawing through his box to see what had been eaten every day. I forced myself to stop asking and waited until he wasn’t around to inspect his box. I also paid attention to his other meals and noticed that he was eating an absolutely enormous supper and a big snack before bed, too. His growth was right on track and he simply shifted his calorie needs elsewhere. That helped me achieve true relaxation about the issue. Kids in school never have time for leisurely lunches so this is something for him to learn to deal with now because it won’t get better (I remember 20 minute lunch periods in high school!). I like Katja’s other ideas as well, especially for your situation, in which your child has taken the problem a step further. Good luck!

  3. Heidi

    Thanks for responding in such depth, Katja!

    He’s actually tall for his age (very tall – 95th percentile or so) – not sure what his weight was at his well-child appointment a couple of weeks ago, as my mom went with him, but I’ve never been concerned about his size. He gets a lot of activity and is a very healthy kid!

    It’s quite possible we’ve been putting too much pressure on him. My husband, son, and I live with my parents (not all meals are eaten together but some are) and, thinking about it, it may well be that we’ve been harder on him about his food intake (especially cumulatively) than we realized at first. There are many things that are wonderful about our situation but I think that he may sometimes feel a bit powerless with four adults around, so it’s quite possible that this is how he’s choosing to push back.

    I appreciate those who’ve taken the time to comment, as well – I’ll share this with my parents/husband and make a plan for going forward!

  4. Bobbini

    Heidi, I was the youngest of five kids and had virtually no ‘power’ in my home growing up. I definitely pushed back somewhat by becoming a notoriously picky eater. My home was pleasant and loving, but I never got to make many choices–from what my room looked like to what we watched on television. The one thing I had control over was what went into my mouth. It was a source of autonomy and attention for me. I think your instinct about backing off completely for awhile is probably really good.

  5. Ines

    Excellent discussion and answers, Katja. Congratulations!

  6. michellers

    Just want to echo what others have said–I have a kindergarten kid and she has gone through the exact same this thing this year as well.

    I think that she prefers to play during lunch so treats her lunchbag as a snackbag. After months of finding mostly uneaten food at the end of the day, instead of a full sandwich and a whole apple I now send half a sandwich and apple slices plus lots of little bags of snacks (rice crackers, baby gerkins, baby carrots, and fruit leather are her favorites). One of the other mothers told me that she calls my daughter “Buffet” because she has such a lot of different stuff in her lunch. I’m pretty sure she meant it as an insult and/or thinks that I am spoiling my daughter, but I just smiled and said that my daughter likes variety just like grownups do.

    By the way, the school lunches are absolutely dreadful here in LA public schools–my daughter refuses to eat them–and the after-school-care snacks are not much better. So I pack enough for the whole day and hopefully a little left over to eat in the car on the way home when she is STARVING (which I personally think is code for “less distracted by other kids and finally aware that she is hungry”).

  7. Jenna

    I am so relieved to read everyone’s stories. My son is very picky and I’ve been frantic to figure out what to do. He has a small appetite and very few foods that he likes. A friend gave me the link to Ellyn Satter’s website as a reference a couple of months ago. I thought there was good sense in what she had to say. This impression was only confirmed when I read one of her books.

    I’m trying so hard with the DOR, but it is so scary to see him testing the limits. This summer at camp I have seen more un-eaten lunches come home than I expected. Especially when I know they were things he likes! It was the same situation described in the other posts – he didn’t have enough time. I admit that I still get frustrated, scared and angry when the food comes back un-eaten. These posts are giving me a MUCH needed reality check.

    Thank you to you all for sharing your struggles. It really helps me, as a newbie to this process, to keep re-setting my reactions and expectations of both myself and my son.

    • katja

      Oh, Jenna, I’m so glad the post, and the comments are a source of inspiration and calm for you! Sticking with the process is so, so hard! That is what I hope this blog will be. On another note, my book comes out next month, and this and other questions like it are what the book is all about. Helping families transition to the Trust model with selective eaters, with perhaps sensory concerns etc. Perhaps that may be a nice addition.
      It sounds like you are well on your way. When I made the transition, it took about 6 months for me to feel like I was in the groove, and still probably another two years to REALLY trust the process fully and not have those days of doubt.
      Hang in there, and I hope you check out facebook for more support and discussions.
      Thank you so much for writing!

  8. Nowsheen

    I have a four daughter already she don’t have a very good habit of eating but a few days back we family members going somewhere by car and she ate a candy and it’s stuck in her troth and start vomiting then start crying after that she just stop eating anything only she is drinking milk and eating cerelacs what should I do she just don’t like to eat anything else she feel so much afraid to eat anything plz plz plz help me

    • katja

      I am so sorry this happened. This is very scary for her and for you. First of all, it sounds like you need some help. Does she have a pediatrician or family doctor? Some children who develop intense fears (phobia) after a vomiting or choking episode can lose a lot of weight. While you figure this out, can you make sure that her drinks have as much nutrition as possible? Maybe milk shakes, or smoothies where you can put some instant breakfast powder (Carnation on Ovaltine, or buy pediasure or other supplement) in it, or cream, or fruits. Her fear is the most important thing here, and she may need some help. This is actually not uncommon. The main thing is to not make her fear or anxiety worse. Yelling at her or making her eat will make this worse. Be as calm as possible, continue to have her join you at meals and offer her some kind of shake and food she feels comfortable eating every few hours. If you can, find a therapist near you who can help her with her fear. She is probably so afraid that she will choke again that is feels almost impossible to eat. So 1) boost her nutrition and calories in what she feels safe eating right away 2) stay calm, do not force her to eat 3) see a doctor to be sure she isn’t losing weight and who can maybe help you find the right help 4) finding someone to help her with her anxiety (a therapist who has worked with children, done this before.) Sometimes it resolves on it’s own, but it sounds like you could use some help and support. I hope that helps. Hang in there! Also, please look into the blog Mealtime Hostage, and on facebook, there is a support group of hundreds of other parents who may have some suggestions of where to take her or what to do.

  9. Pretty

    That was a good read. I have an extremely picky eater(aged 5) at home. I spent years getting anguished, upset, crying..praying and anxious about her mealtime. She is getting little better. Very litle progress and learned to stay calm. But parties, get-togethers are stress ful as she refuses to eat anything and gets distracted with play times and ends up not eating anything. She wont have meat, fish, egg, raw vegeis. Takes few fruits. milk, rice with lentil(which makes up for her protien) and yogurt.I try to compensate her nutrional needs in some way. I really get tired of cooking specific food for her.The problem with her is being more stuborn and I know she will definitley like the taste of some of the food..but is really not ready to give it a try. She considers eating/mealtime as a waste of time and that she can not play with her toys. we tried everything like offering her our food and not making special food, but this lack of calories end up with her gettig leg pains in the night as she is a very active kid who refuses to rest herself. Now she has asked me to pack her lunch to day care as she doesnot like the food being served there. She survived without touching the food for 3 years and stay hungry till i pick her and i used to give her an early dinner. Now she is not able to concentrate with an empty stomach. The packed lunch was helping to some extnet, but again these days they are coming back home untouched..giving lame excuses ..i was very tired..my eyes were droopy, my friends left the table and so on.. I hope I will get that one day where we will be enjoying our family meal together eating happily and my daughter trying the food i served.

    • katja

      Hello Pretty, You are right, your first goal is to nourish her. Every meal or snack must have at least one food she will usually eat. This is a complex issue, and I do believe you can get to that place of her enjoying meals and new foods, and being able to tune in again to hunger and appetite. A great resource is Mealtime Hostage Blog and Facebook page. Know too that the harder you push or try to make her eat, generally the less well she will eat. I go into this all in my book, Love Me, Feed Me and the introduction, chapter one, 2, 3, 4 and later chapters would all apply, even if you have a biological child (the book is “for” adoptive families, but most of the advice is the same I give to all my clients.) Good luck on this journey! You are not alone! ellynsatterinstitute.org also has great resources! Check out old posts of mine on picky eating as well.

      • Pretty

        Thank you so much Katja. Really appreciate your advise. I am going to get a copy of the book. It really motivating to see your prompt response.

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