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how much or what your kids ate at lunch-does it matter?

Posted by on Dec 6, 2010 in Blog Posts | 14 comments

What’s the first thing you do when you pick up your child from school or daycare? Take a minute.

Many parents do a quick “hello” (some even skip that part) and then launch into quizzing about what and how much the child ate for lunch. Lunch boxes are handed over, opened and examined closely, followed by either,ย  “Good job! You ate all your sandwich!” or a “Why didn’t you eat your carrots?” I think it’s so automatic for many parents, they don’t realize they do it. What purpose does it serve? What do you do with that information?

One client I worked with around her son’s picky eating (he was basically subsisting on plane rice and pasta when they contacted me, much to his mother’s chagrin) admitted that the first things she did was check the big dry-erase board that listed all the kids and what and how much they ate from their packed lunches.ย  It was too much information. Her mood was up or down based on what her son ate that day, and she noted what all the other kids were eating and got depressed when her son was the “worst” eater. How could it not feel like a reflection of her mothering? Why was all her effort around encouraging, cooking with her son, begging, bribing and withholding desserts not helping?

The thing is, it’s hard to let go of control with feeding. If we feed with the Division of Responsibility, we put the food in the lunch box, with options that are balanced most days. The child chooses how much from what we pack. That’s it.

Then we plan and serve and sit with our child while they eat snack, and we get to do it again at dinner time. It’s a lot or work, and for parents feeding in the standard control model today, they are also responsible for how many portions of fruits and veggies, and how many calories, and how much sugar actually goes into the child. It’s too much and it’s not helping.

It’s hard to let go of the things we can’t and shouldn’t try to control.

My homework for that client one week was to not look at the dry-erase board. To let go what she could not control. To not let if and what he ate at lunch color her mood, heighten her anxiety and eventually lead to theย  pressure, bribes and power struggles that were undermining rather than supporting her son’s learning around food.

Do you do the lunchbox rifling, the quizzing on the way home?

Here’s a challenge. For one week, be ignorant of what and how much your little one eats at lunch.

What would happen? Would you do things differently? Does it make it easier to not pressure or push at meals and snacks? Does your child notice? Wouldn’t it be nice to just start with, “I’m so glad to see you,” instead of,ย  “Did you eat all your sandwich?”

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  1. Twistie

    Back when my brothers and I were in school, we got paper sacks every day which we disposed of at school (What? It was the 60’s and 70’s and recycling was just starting to be a big topic and insulated lunch boxes/bags didn’t exist, and I tended to either destroy or lose the metal lunch boxes), so Mom and Dad never did know precisely what we ate and what we didn’t. They never asked, either. Mom gave us a pretty standard lunch (sandwich, a piece of fruit, perhaps a few chips or crackers) and we would get drinks at school. She knew who did and didn’t like bologna, and she knew who was going to complain if given mayonnaise on a sandwich. She catered to our individual tastes, but didn’t consult us on a daily basis. Once it was given, she considered it out of her hands.

    The one thing she didn’t know was that since she almost never packed anything sweet in the bags (once in a blue moon, she would put some homemade cookies in), my best friend made a habit of sharing her individually wrapped, commercially made pie with me every day. We both got gleeful when it was chocolate, and I always passed on days when she had cherry.

    But mostly Mom figured she had made a decent lunch and either trusted us to eat it contentedly and not trade the whole thing for cake… or it never occurred to her that we might trade. I think it’s actually probably door #2. Still, we all got fed and she didn’t make a big deal about it. I remember feeling quite relieved about that once when I went home with a friend after school and heard the inquisition she was apparently subjected to every day about her lunch. I remember thinking even at eight that this mother definitely needed to take a chill pill about the question. I could see how frustrated my friend was getting. It made me think if I were she, I would probably just toss my lunch out at school and then lie through my teeth about eating it.

    Yeah, it was moments like that that made me appreciate my mother all the more. She was kind of awesome.

  2. Elizabeth

    Seriously? They put it on the dry-erase board? So all the kids can focus on what one another are eating?

    My 2-year-old’s daycare does tell me how many servings of which foods he ate (from their kitchen – I don’t send lunch with him). But I’m pretty sure they’ll keep serving him until he’s done, however much or little food might be involved in that. I’ve gotten sheets that say, “4 servings turkey, 3 servings potatoes, 4 servings peaches, 3 cups milk,” and sheets that say “0 servings turkey, 0 servings potatoes, 1 serving peaches, 1/2 cup milk,” and no one seems to worry about it one way or the other.

    For my 6-year-old, I do vaguely notice what comes home in her lunch bag (usually when I empty it out before filling it the next morning), but it’s whatever she chose to put in there rather than throw away – not even a good indicator of what she ate, really. At most, an indicator of what she liked enough to think she might finish in the afternoon even though she didn’t want to eat it all at lunchtime. And on days when she eats a school lunch, I know even less about what she eats (unless there is half a bag of Sun Chips stuck in her backpack to finish later.)

    • katja

      I am really impressed with the notes from the 2 year old’s daycare! Sounds wonderful! No comments if he ate 4 or 0 servings! Sounds like you aren’t too worried and you are letting your kids do their jobs with eating nicely. What a relief, eh? Isn’t it freeing?!

      • Elizabeth

        I will occasionally say, “Hey, you were hungry today, huh, Howard?” And if I do, his teacher may roll her eyes and say, “He sure was!” But no one makes any negative comments, whether it’s a lot or a little – just generally noticing him, whatever it is. And the daycare teacher is the one who noticed and pointed out to me that he often doesn’t eat as much when it’s hot out.

        It probably helps that he doesn’t like sweets that much (and hates chocolate), so he’s more likely to gorge on steak than cake – he doesn’t set off their (or my) alarm triggers for eating habits. And he is huge for his age, but not fat – right around 98th percentile for both height and weight. So everyone expects him to be a big eater. But I haven’t seen any signs that anyone is trying to cajole him to eat when he doesn’t want to, either. He’s moving up to a new classroom this week – I hope the new teacher is just as good.

  3. jessidehl

    My problem isn’t that I’m obsessed with what my kid ate (we’re over a year into the DOR). My problem is that when we’re out our friends, she sees the parents praising the kids for eating some of this and some of that and then she’ll look at me and say, “look, Mom, I ate *fill in the blank*. Am a I good eater?” I’ve stumbled around a few times and said that in our family we just eat when our belly is hungry and it’s not really good or bad. Then I asked her if she liked the taste of whatever she ate. I’d really like to have a “go to” phrase if it happens again.
    Most of our good friends know how I deal with eating but the hovering is so ingrained that I still have to intervene sometimes.

    • katja

      how about, “What do you think?”
      How about, “You’re a good eater because you eat lots of different tasty things and you listen to your body…” Maybe if your friends are in earshot that might make them curious. What do you think?
      “You’re not a good eater because you ate that, but you’re a good eater because (see above…)”
      I’d love to throw this out to the readers sometime…

    • katja

      FYI, sounds like your “stumbling” was a great answer!

  4. Lisa

    I never ask, but I DO check the lunch box sometime before I go to sleep just to know what she is liking/not liking. I do pack in veggies that she consistently ignores, and I try not to let that bother me (I don’t comment on it with her, either).
    I have had to speak to the daycare staff about NOT giving her feedback on what she eats or encouraging her to eat and I know that with all the other parents they are getting exactly the opposite request, “make sure my child eats!!” So I’ve explained where I’m coming from and acknowledged it might seem weird, and they’ve been pretty cool about it.

    • katja

      I’m so glad your child care is catching on. The nice thing is you are asking them to do less, not more ๐Ÿ™‚ They are in fact hounded by parents who want them to enforce bites and ‘this before that’ rules… Sorry the veggies are coming back. Do you try to pack in new dips occasionally, or veggies made a different way? Just curious ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Lisa

        yeah… I’ve tried a number of different ways of serving the veggies. I made the mistake of asking her to “just try a few bites” for about 6 months over a year ago, and we’re still paying for that mistake ๐Ÿ™ The ironic thing is, she WAS actually willing to take those few bites, but I could “feel” that she was not enjoying the veggies and that bothered me. It took me years to enjoy a salad after enforced dieting as a child/teen and I felt like I was walking her down that same path. So: I will stay patient and nonchalant about the veggies and have faith that at some point she will be more open to them. The good news is she’s otherwise a very happy eater and gets plenty of fiber from fruits and whole grains.

  5. Jess

    I couldn’t agree more! I see this a lot in our pre-school, i.e. the lengthy discussion of exactly how many bites of lunch were eaten. I must confess I have my own bogeyman: sleep. Every day the first thing I ask the teacher is “did he take a nap”? But if there were ever an issue for division of responsibility, sleep has got to be one– you certainly can’t force a kid, you can only set the stage, right? This post is a good reminder to me to hold off on the sleep inquisition. I wonder if I could stop asking about it completely for a week. That’s a good challenge.

    I do ask my son about lunch, but later in the evening when I’m washing his lunch containers; the school returns large uneaten portions (i.e. they won’t repack scraps, but if your kid only took a bite of the sandwich, they’ll just repack it). So if I find a lot of lunch returned I ask him if it was because he just wasn’t hungry or if it was because he didn’t like what I gave him. If he just wasn’t hungry, fine, and if he didn’t like it, I file that away for future lunch making reference.

    • katja

      I do check out what comes back. I still do rotate in things she doesn’t eat, but it’s tough knowing that the yogurt or the whole wheat bread will likely come back, but if I don’t make a big deal out of it, it will be how it tastes, not my level of concern or how much she can gain from the fight, that is the deciding factor.
      The sleep thing is interesting. I would argue it is different (certainly not making a big deal of it in front of him would take the power chip aspect out) but I also asked. It would help me plan our evening. More low-key if she hadn’t slept, maybe start the bedtime routine a little earlier etc… But true, you can’t force a child to sleep, but just as with eating, you can provide a great structure and framework and routine etc to give it the best shot!