Picky Eating in the School Cafeteria

Most parents tell me that their elementary school child has 20 to 25 minutes to enter the
school cafeteria,  search for his lunchbox buried in a portable tub, find a place to sit, open all the containers, eat (oh, right, eat), then clean and pack up before the bell rings. In an effort to ensure that their kids eat anything at all, well-meaning parents pack lunchboxes filled to the brim with a smorgasbord of options. 

Picture this: Your little first grader searches for spot in a sea of tables, newly found lunchbox in hand. She squeezes in between his best friends, climbing up onto the metal bench, feet dangling, with her  little elbows resting on the much too high table top, just below her chin. Most school cafeterias provide the same size seating for the entire school, whether the kids are 3 feet tall or towering 5th graders, about to move on to middle school. Ever try to eat a meal on a narrow bench, your feet dangling and no back-rest? It’s not easy. By the time your child gets  the plastic bags opened, the juice box straw unwrapped and poked hard enough into the box that it squirts her in the face, all while holding up her other hand to signal the teacher “Can you please open this lid?” well, another 5 minutes have passed by. Meanwhile,  she’s excited to get out to recess, now just 15 minutes away.

As a feeding therapist, I visit lots of school cafeterias and have learned that parents and teachers have one priority: Getting kids to eat a nutritious lunch. In contrast, kids have this priority: Talking to their friends. How then, does a parent pack a lunch, especially for a picky eater, that allows their child some much needed “down time” to chat with friends yet fill their bellies quickly and nutritiously?

Here are 3 strategies to do just that:

  1. Send one easy open container plus a drink. I recommend EasyLunchboxes® BPA-free system, because the lid is easy for little fingers to pop off and instantly reveal 3 to 4 yummy choices. It’s quick and not as overwhelming as a lunchbox filled to the brim with individual containers, especially with 6 to 8 choices, which is what I often observe.
  2. Pack “GRAB and GAB” food. Cut fresh fruit, veggies, sandwiches, cheese, etc. into small enough pieces that kids can grab a piece without gazing down and continue to gab with their friend across the table. My favorite speedy gadget is FunBites® which instantly creates grab and gab bites, yet has no sharp edges. It’s a fun way to get kids in the kitchen making their own lunch – once again, get them involved and they are more likely to eat it later. (For 25% off your entire order, use the code MyMunchBug at checkout.)
  3. Pack a power packed drink. Include a frozen smoothie that you made the night before. Freeze it directly in the cup (with a lid, of course) and be sure to include a wide straw. By the time your child opens her lunch, the smoothie will be the perfect consistency, plus it helped to keep the lunch cold.

One elementary school that I visited was graciously flexible to help one little girl eat better. They provided a smaller table that fit her so that her feet could be on the floor (or try a box underneath little feet to as a footrest). The table should be at sternum-height so your child can see her food and rest her arms for stability. Smaller tables also reduce cafeteria noise and foster social skills thanks to smaller groups of kids sitting together.

Here’s a picture of that sweet little girl. Note the easy “grab and gab” food in one (and only one) container. See the rest of the food on the table? That belongs to the two other kids seated across from her.

Tell me about your kids’ cafeterias – the good, the bad and the delicious! What can we do to help kids in school get more time and more options for a healthy lunch?

Tomorrow’s post: Tips on enjoying family dinners, even with a hesitant eater.

Melanie Potock

Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP is a certified speech language pathologist, a national speaker on the topic of picky eating, and the author of the award winning parenting book, Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids: How to Teach Your Child About the Joy of Food!

Note: This Perspectives Blog post is written by a guest blogger of DrGreene.com. The opinions expressed on this post do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Greene or DrGreene.com, and as such we are not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied. View the license for this post.

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  1. Celine

    My children’s school does not even have a cafeteria. All the children eat in their classrooms. Hot lunch is brought by cart to the classrooms. I don’t know what all the teachers do but my child’s teacher spreads the kids out through out the room, one to two kids per table (they do not use desks) which are for the most part proper size. This allows for overly chatty kids to be separated. Lunches from home are also placed in a refrigerator in the classroom. Some rooms even have a microwave so I am sure that for certain situations food could be heated, though they will not do this for all the kids. They also serve hot lunch on glass plates or bowls with metal utensils and glass cups. They have enough tableware for all the kids in the class.

    I think all those things are big positives for all kids.

    • Hi Celine! I do too! Sometimes I notice that smaller kids need smaller spoons/forks, but they are easy to stow in the classroom or their cubbies. I love eating in the classroom. My own daughter could not tolerate the noise in the cafeteria in first grade and her sweet teacher started eating with her in the classroom (with a small group of friends) then slowly transitioned her to the bigger cafeteria with all the hustle and the bustle. But, I wish all kids could eat in the smaller environment. I’d rather do that – more peaceful!

  2. Great tips Melanie! Love the picture of the little friend enjoying her lunch at a table that suits her. :)

    • Thanks Jennifer! The table is also in the corner so that she can focus on her two friends and her food. There are a lot of big kids in the cafeteria at the same time and it can be distracting. Great school – great mom who advocated for her child and great kid!


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