Updated: Mar 30, 2021
Does this sound familiar... you've made a lunchbox worthy of a magazine cover. It’s got all the favourites plus some options guaranteed to be ignored but that make us feel better.
Dashing to the school gates in the afternoon we spot our child and breathlessly ask what they’ve eaten. Deer in the headlight eyes stare back, then the head drops, the shoulders sag and we realise without looking that we have a boomerang box. Again.
Not eating lunch is a common problem and not just for children who are picky or have issues eating. Many children are too busy playing, socialising or just lose track of the eating window and suddenly lunchtime is over, and the box returns to the bag largely neglected.
There are some things to consider that can improve eating for children at all stages of the eating competency spectrum.
Some are simple and obvious and yet can still impact either negatively or positively on how our children eat:
1. Away from home the more familiar foods are the more likely to get eaten.
The lunchbox is not the place for learning. For anxious eaters, road testing anything new at home prior to sending to school supports a smoother experience.
2. Having the food in easy to open and familiar containers scaffolds eating.
Not being able to confidently open packaging on their own may mean it gets returned to the box. Using simple marketing strategies like adding a favourite sticker on a pot or the skin of a banana, for example, can make the difference between acceptance and rejection.
3. Ticking boxes for our child in terms of temperature, taste and texture.
Hot or cold can be a make or break as can foods that are too squishy or not crunchy or are a new flavour. Working with our child and providing food that is within their specific parameters, as best as practicable, supports better results.
4. Smaller items are often less intimidating and easier to contemplate than larger offerings. Even sandwiches cut into little pieces are more manageable and help with “grab and go”. I know my son used to load up his pockets so he could dash off and not compromise playing time by being stuck plowing through the lunchbox.
Sticking with the ‘small is better’ theme, it is also worth considering how much is loaded into the lunchbox every day. I know it can be tempting to put a whole range of foods into the box, in the hope that something will pique our child’s interest and lead to them eating. In my experience though, this often backfires. A picky eater will open the box and freak out as there is so much in there which can be overwhelming. In general, offering less often results in more being eaten.
5. Without morphing into a gourmet chef every day, presentation is important.
We eat with our eyes so having something that looks good is supportive of better eating.
6. Offer choices.
Empowering our child, within strict parameters, enables them to feel that they have some control over their food. Pick and pack stations can be a great way to do this. Having 3 or 4 baskets on the bench and our child can pick one item from each basket, for example.
7. The more relaxed we are the more likely we are to eat.
This goes for adults as well as children. If we are arguing, anxious, upset, distracted or pressured, we are not focused on eating. Anything that impacts on the comfort level will impede eating. Away from home small worries are often magnified and this makes eating less easy again. What can we do that supports our child in this regard?
As a parent the mission is to reduce the fear and increase the comfort and confidence around eating. If our child is very sensitive this can be challenging in a school environment. Noise, smells, peer pressure (in a negative not positive way) and fear of not being able to competently manage eating can make lunchtimes a miserable experience if not managed well.
Part of ensuring our child is supported as much as is feasible is open lines of communication, so our teachers know how they can help. Often small changes can reap large rewards. The smell of other people’s lunch for example, may be distressing. Being able to sit a little separately, at least initially may not be difficult for the teacher to manage but awareness of the issue enables everyone to act in our child’s best interests.
8. Having a limited amount of time to eat puts pressure on us to “perform”.
The lunchbox must be conquered quickly. For those who are naturally less comfortable about eating this can dampen appetite. Rules that are placed around what must be eaten first or the quantity to be consumed magnifies this. Suddenly the innocuous sandwich seems to have grown and eating it seems insurmountable. Allowing our child more control over eating can dramatically increase the quantity eaten.
9. Rotating items within the lunchbox is our responsibility.
As much as it’s comforting for our child to see the same thing every day it also encourages food jags. If they then lose interest in a particular option, we may find it challenging to substitute something new. Gentle changes are important.
Knowing that their eating is being analysed can impact on the ability to eat competently.
10. Taking an inventory of the lunchbox contents the minute we see our child can set up a success/failure equation.
Our child is judged on whether lunch has been conquered or not. Knowing that their eating is being analysed can impact on the ability to eat competently. This extends to conversations with our child’s caregiver about food and volume. Knowing there is that evaluation happening can make a child less likely to eat.
All ten points revolve around comfort. The more relaxed our child is in their environment, in the contents of the lunchbox, in the messages that are being imparted, the more likely they are to eat enthusiastically and well.
Judith is mum to two boys and is 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.
She delights in showing parents how to get picky eaters eating in simple, gentle, practical steps that anyone can master. She graduated from Cambridge University and has internationally certified qualifications in picky eating. She is also schooled in nutrition, parent education and is a trained telephone support worker for ParentHelpline. Judith is currently doing post graduate studies in Psychology as she would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and spearhead research in this area.
Find out more at: