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

Posted by on May 15, 2012 in Blog Posts | 19 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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