One of the most common questions I receive is around dealing with kid’s lunchboxes coming home either untouched or partially eaten. It may be something that you have already encountered or may encounter in the future. I totally understand how frustrating it is – I know for me I buy good quality food and hate to see anything wasted. So, I thought I’d team up with Psychotherapist Jane Faulkner to offer a few solutions. We’ve broken these down into age groups as this will somewhat impact your approach.
Firstly, across all ages I think it’s important to be very clear with your kids of what your expectations are. As parents we all have different expectations of our kids – how tidy their rooms are kept, bed made (or not) etc; and the lunchbox is no exception. So, for me, my kids have known since they were little that I expect them to finish the contents of their school lunch, if not at school then after school. This obviously doesn’t always work out, so when they haven’t eaten all of their lunch, I always inquire into why that’s the case and we discuss how to remedy any problems (like less food, a different kind of food). If there is no resolvable problem, then I will re-state my expectations and encourage them to get back on track.
Kindy and Prep
Distraction is the biggest issue for kindy and prep aged kids. The best approach is to prepare them as much as possible for eating at school. I’ve written about how to prepare your toddler to become lunchbox ready here.
At this age, they should still be supervised and given plenty of time to sit and eat their lunch. If they are not eating at school, enlist the help of teachers to re-inforce what you’ve told them – that eating their lunch is really important for them to be able to concentrate, learn and play at school. If you are packing a healthy, whole foods lunch and your kids are feeling out of place (because their classmates have packaged, processed lunches) also ask the teacher to perhaps have a quiet word about how lucky they are to eat so well or pass little comments about how yummy their lunches look to encourage them. Explain why you make the food choices that you do and that it’s okay to be different.
It may be helpful to have smaller, bite sized pieces so that the food doesn’t break or fall out of their smaller hands. Kids at this age are really keen to help and are like little sponges, so also get them involved in washing the vegies, preparing what they can and start to educate them about healthy choices. Healthy foods make us strong and help us to feel good. This is the perfect age to lay solid foundations about healthy foods and to create a healthy connection to food.
Also get them to help pack their own lunch – give them choices and prepare items so they can place it in their lunchbox. Having a system is useful for younger kids. For example, they need to choose a piece of fruit, two veggies (have these washed and cut-up ready), a protein (something you have cooked like leftover chicken, egg, tuna etc.), and a snack you may have baked (I have a container with treats in the freezer for my kids to choose from).
This is often where eating at school takes a back seat to playing and socialising. Often kids aren’t supervised or given an allocated time to eat in junior school and this is such a shame. I really wish schools were more mindful of this and had allocated times for kids to eat, followed by play (some schools do well here, others don’t).
Again, re-inforce that eating is necessary to keep them focussed, doing well at school and if they love sport, performing well at their chosen sports. Discuss with your child what you can do to help if they are preferring play over food – things like packing one handed lunches or things that they find quicker to eat. Also, re-inforce your expectations and why we don’t waste food (as above).
It’s helpful to start to teach kids about the connection between what they eat or don’t eat and how they feel. For example, if they come home from school complaining that they have a headache or that they feel really tired or angry and they haven’t eaten their lunch (when you are both fed and calm) explain what happens to their bodies without food. Their blood sugar levels plummet and their body really struggles to concentrate or play. Maybe even explain the term ‘hangry’, how our body gets so hungry that we start to feel angry and frustrated. Even challenge them to an experiment; let’s see how you feel if you eat as much of your lunch as you can! I find if kids can make the connection between the behaviour and the outcome, they are much more likely to make different choices for themselves from within.
They should also be contributing to packing their own lunch – the more they fuss, the more responsibility they have in packing it.
Once your kids are in high school they can pack their own lunch start to finish. This is where peer pressure really kicks in and the need to fit-in often outshines the need to eat. Kids are also starting to form their own opinions about who they are and are differentiating from their parents- trying out new things to work out how they are different. This may involve doing the opposite of what you have taught them and instead of eating what you have always prepared, bingeing on junk foods or not eating at all.
It’s important to remember that this is a tough age- there is a lot going on for our teens on many levels- hormones, peers, pressure to fit in, school work and also the current state of our world. I think the best tactic here is to be clear on what you expect- that food will not be wasted but to also be open to exploring new options and to encourage your teen to take charge of what they will prepare for themselves. It’s important not to add more pressure or concern- at this age your child needs you to be a firm, kind and steady influence who is not freaking out about whether they have eaten lunch or not. Lectures tend to fall on deaf ears, sometimes I think teens need to learn from their own experiences and make better choices from their own internal compass within. Keep providing healthy wholefood options at home and try not to make a big deal out of what they are choosing outside of home. Remind yourself of all of the groundwork that you have put in- they are standing on solid foundations of what healthy food is and how it feels to eat well.
If you are concerned about their eating habits- let them know when you are both calm. It’s important not to shame your teen and to be open to what they have to share with you. They may be too anxious to eat at school, they may have concerns about their weight, they may have friends teasing them about their lunch. Most issues surrounding food are not about the food itself, they are about feelings. So be a supportive, non-judgemental ear to your child and help them to work through their issues. Be open to what they have to say and to trying out something different even if it’s one day a week, to meet them in the middle. This doesn’t mean that suddenly you have no boundaries or expectations- it means that you show them that you value their opinion and you are willing to try out something new.
Remember, if your child has been raised on healthy wholefoods they will generally return to that way of eating and to keep providing healthy wholefood meals at home. I think it is also great to encourage your teen to cook one meal for the family per week. This teaches them a skill and also helps them to form a healthy relationship with food.
If all else fails…
If getting your kids to eat their school lunch is an ongoing battle, perhaps focus on making the bookends of the day (breakfast and afternoon tea) super healthy, filling and nourishing and pack a very small lunch. Control the meals you do have control over and know that you are setting foundations for a life long love of wholefoods.
I hope this post is useful and helps you to tackle any pesky uneaten lunchbox issues that have or may arise for your kids. I wrote this post in conjunction with respected Psychotherapist Jane Faulkner who often contributes to posts here at Well Nourished.