Child will not eat at school
August 18, 2007 3:26 AM   Subscribe

How do I get my daughter to eat her school lunches?

My little girl has just started kindergarten and while she is doing well in terms of behaving and homework, my husband and I are having problems with getting her to eat the lunches her school provides. My daughter goes to a private school and their menus focus on the same things we do at home. They serve the same foods we would at home and that is why I am at a loss as to why she cannot eat her meals.

When she is at home, she loves to eat. She can eat a pretty big portion considering her age and she is not a picky eater by any means. For example, when she goes to restaurants with us, she loves to eat steamed oysters and has never had an issue with eating her vegetables. I can admit that being at school and eating with other kids can be distracting, however, her teachers have informed us that she is always the last person to eat and has to be told to throw her food away because lunch is over. My husband and I have assumed this to be a game she has learned to play, taking as slow as possible to eat that way lunch ends and she doesn't have to eat at all.

My husband and I have always had problems with getting her to eat when we are not with her. When she was younger, she had the same issue with her daycare and with her nanny. I remember having to take my lunch breaks to coincide with her daycare lunch time so that I can visit her and ensure she eats. When I did that, there was no problem. She was more than happy to eat and finished all of her food. She also has the same eating problem when she is with family members and not with us, so it does not make sense to believe it is just because she is with strangers.

Family members have suggested that perhaps she is just most comfortable with us when she eats and is not distracted. I will admit she enjoys eating with us and is truly delighted to spend time with her parents, but I am not at all complimented by this issue. I will not pack a lunch for her to eat because she does not finish those either and I feel that doing that caters to her avoiding eating school lunches (if that is the case).

My husband and I understand that this is just a phase and since I was a stay at home mom 90% of the time, she is going to just get used to eating without us. For now, we have told her no treats or anything special until she starts to eat her food at school. We are truly at a loss on what to do.
posted by dnthomps to Home & Garden (35 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you're not doing anything wrong. If she's having an issue with eating with people who are not her parents, she will grow out of it. It's her issue and she has to decide to get over it. If she continues skipping lunches at school, she will eventually figure out that she gets hungry later in the afternoon and she'll decide that maybe eating lunch is a good idea. Don't worry, she won't "starve" while she's figuring it all out. Just continue to encourage her to eat without you, and she'll do it eventually.
posted by amyms at 3:36 AM on August 18, 2007

While I'm being no means qualified to speak as to how to parent, as someone who was on the receiving end of some pretty grueling overparenting as a kid, I might suggest just giving this one some time.
posted by Ryvar at 3:46 AM on August 18, 2007

I sounds harsh, but when she's hungry, she'll eat. There doesn't seem to be any emotional trauma from this, and is it really causing problems at school?

Is there any way to send her with a lunch? It's a hassle, but that might be the level of comfort she needs to eat at school.
posted by shinynewnick at 4:03 AM on August 18, 2007

Have you asked her what it is about being at school that is affecting her eating? Or how eating at school seems different to her? (Note: Don't ask "why" she isn't eating. "Why" questions aren't very helpful at getting real info out of a child.)

She may be able to consider and articulate the problem if asked in that way. She sounds creative and bright and may be able to help you guys come up with solutions to this herself. Could be distraction or something, but phobias are fairly common with children of that age and it could be something that seems small to you, but is somehow a big deal for her.

Good luck!
posted by thebrokedown at 4:29 AM on August 18, 2007

My husband and I have truly considered packing a lunch for her because I am sure the school cooks their food differently than we do, even if it is the same meal. She doesn't like things to greasy or spicy, so I am more understanding when it is sloppy joe day. However, I thought packing a lunch would be us backing down and catering to her. I have packed lunches for her before when she was in daycare and she did not finish it either. I just do not want my daughter to grow up and be picky about food and where it comes from. I know how special "home cooked meals" are and there is no meal better than the one your mom makes, but she truly has a hard time eating without us and it sometimes changes any plans if her grandparents or great grandparents want to take her for a couple of days. And I do not want her to lose that family time.

To amyms, she definitely does eat right after school. And my husband and I were toying with the idea of not giving her all of her favorite meals when she gets home because it just seems that she waits to get home to eat. And I do not want her to grow up with that mindset, even if I continue to be a stay at home mom. We have already taken treats away for every day she does not eat at school. I know it will take time and she is not too happy with me going back to work. I was just wondering if anyone had any quick suggestions besides the no treat rule.
posted by dnthomps at 4:37 AM on August 18, 2007

You babied her for daycare, making your lunch coincide wither hers, not it's withdrawl. Let her starve and figure out no one is going to baby her anymore for lunch.
posted by thilmony at 4:44 AM on August 18, 2007

dang it- NOW it's withdrawl
posted by thilmony at 4:44 AM on August 18, 2007

what does your pediatrician think? s/he may have some good advice.

i'm not a parent, but my parents' rule with me was to eat what was given to me or don't eat at all. i didn't starve or grow up traumatized. maybe withhold after-school snacks if she didn't eat lunch? yes, she'll be uncomfortable, but she might need a little negative reinforcement.

it might just be a power issue for her--she knows it upsets you and this is her way of manipulating you to get your attention. i doubt, at the tender age of 5, that she's doing this maliciously--she's probably just testing boundaries. since you catered to it before, she's learned that this is an effective way to get your attention. again, i'm sure she's not being mean, she just likes the attention and doesn't understand the implications.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:50 AM on August 18, 2007

It's a control game. My (almost) 5yo will pull the same stunt. I wouldn't cater to the situation, because right now, she's figured out you'll cave. When she's hungry, she WILL eat. Nobody has ever starved from missing a couple of meals. One of the things that kids come with is the automatic ability to regulate their consumption. As we get older, we lose that gift - whether it's because of preference or a poor food relationship.

Have you read any of the Ellyn Satter books? They're definitely not 'beach reads' (i.e., you can't easily read them cover to cover), but are great reference-type books.

Her book Child of Mine essentially boils down to:"You can't control or dictate the quantity of food your child eats, and you shouldn't try. You also can't control or dictate the kind of body your child develops, and you shouldn't try. What you can do, and it is a great deal, is set things up for your child so she, herself, can regulate her food intake as well as possible, and so she can develop a healthy body that is constitutionally right for her."

The book starts with newborns and goes to toddler/preschool. She has other books that pertain to family feeding, etc. I would *definitely* have her books on hand - they're great not just for food battles, but also as guidelines for healthy food outlooks in general.
posted by dancinglamb at 5:03 AM on August 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

Kids can be amazingly picky when it comes to their food. Frustratingly so. And, often, the thing that determines, in their little minds, what makes a food "acceptable" or "icky" has nothing to do with the food itself.

How is the food served? Maybe she has an issue with the green plastic tray they plop the food on? Or maybe it's the plopping of the food itself? I'm not joking here. Context can sometimes be as important to a child as the item itself.

The solution is, usually, let the child go without. They have to learn that this is food time. And don't let her come home and gorge after school. That just teaches her she can keep skipping the school lunch.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:34 AM on August 18, 2007

Give her stuff for breakfast that she isn't too fond of. Give her a normal portion but NO extra.

When she is hungry, she'll eat. I wouldn't say another word to her about it. This is all about the attention. Just tell her that when the teachers tell you she's eating lunch, then treats will come back. Then, NOT ANOTHER WORD.

If that doesn't work within several weeks, ask the pediatrician.
posted by konolia at 5:42 AM on August 18, 2007

If it helps any, I did something similar as a kid. My particular rule was, if mom wanted me to eat, she cooked me a different dinner than everyone else was eating. I got my own dinner, or I didn't eat. It worked really well for feeling secure about whether anyone was paying attention or cared about you.

It may be her (subconscious) way of assuring herself she's important to you and you pay attention to her, especially sine you're not there. See, you KNOW she's not eating, so it's a good indicator to her you're paying attention to her - you know what's happening even if you're not there. It's not about the food...
posted by Rubythursday at 6:37 AM on August 18, 2007

When I was a child, I was very fussy too. I don't know what it was, but I didn't like anything at all that other people cooked. I avoided going to friends' houses because I didn't want to offend their parents -- or worse, be bullied into eating stuff I didn't like. When it was unavoidable, e.g., family gatherings, I would pretty much eat lettuce with salt. I simply didn't like anything else. I would cry if anybody tried to force me to eat more. I started preparing food for myself at a fairly young age (usually the same meal for 3 months straight) and asked Mum not to cook dinner for me anymore.

I was slightly underweight/gawky back then, but just so you know, I grew up to be normal weight, with a normal appetite, and now I eat everything.

So I don't think there is necessarily anything to worry about. Some kids are just weird about food, but it eventually corrects itself. Just wait until puberty -- she will be ravenous for everything and anything!

(Data point: my mum never pestered me about my fussy eating. Your pestering may very well make her even more resistant. I can imagine that's what would have happened with me.)
posted by mjao at 6:46 AM on August 18, 2007

Obviously, you want to be certain she has proper nutrition. Send her with a substantial snack. Maybe whole grain crackers, carrots, and some peanut butter. It should be pretty boring, maybe the same thing every day. So she has the option of eating food that meets whatever comfort need she has, but it's less appealing than school lunch.

Then, as konolia recommends, remove the attention. It's not just that you want to extinguish food as an attention mechanism, but lots of fuss about food suggests to a child that food needs to be a big deal.

Same deal with snack after school. If the snack at home is nutritious, but less interesting than the school lunch, she'll adapt. And you won't have to worry about your child being hungry, which is a rotten feeling.
posted by theora55 at 7:04 AM on August 18, 2007

I agree with those that say she's been conditioned to think that if she doesn't eat, mommy will show up. What child wouldn't like mom coming to lunch with them. If she spent a large amount of time at preschool and with a nanny, she probably felt a lot of great one on one time with mom.

She won't let herself starve. Its important to not let her snack at home, not increase portions at home, and make sure you spend quality time with her at home every night not related to food.
posted by allthewhile at 7:50 AM on August 18, 2007

Yeah, she's learned you will make special allowances and give her special attention to get her to eat. We went through this with my stepdaughter, and my son, in different variations. Regular breakfast, lunch is what she eats at lunch, and no snacks before dinner if she doesn't eat her lunch. Dinner is regular portions, no extra, but feel free to give her dessert.

In other words, don't let her overstuff herself so she doesn't feel it when she's missing lunch, but don't turn meals into a power struggle. Don't talk about it, comment on it, cajole her, and don't alter your meal plan to make sure that dinner every night is something she really likes to make up for the loss of lunch. The less you focus on the relationship with food the better- you don't want to teach your daughter now that food is love OR control.

As long as there are no other impediments, I echo everyone else's sentiments- she won't starve herself.
posted by headspace at 8:03 AM on August 18, 2007

I threw my school lunches away uneaten every day for about 13 years. I don't know why, really. Kids are weird.
posted by BackwardsCity at 8:12 AM on August 18, 2007

Upon reflection, it was more like 5 years.
posted by BackwardsCity at 8:13 AM on August 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'll reiterate what other people have said. If she is hungry, she will eat. A child will not purposefully starve herself.

It's easy for me to say, but I wouldn't worry about this one bit. I certainly wouldn't focus on food. Don't talk about food or plead her to eat. Or ask her if she ate her lunch, or tell her to have "one more bite of broccoli", etc.

I've read a few books and materials concerning children's nutrition. I just did a 12-hour continuing education class on preventing childhood obesity. The consensus is that, we should enjoy our food, keep your child company while they're eating when you can. But never force them to finish, or make a big deal out of eating. Food can certainly be pleasurable, but it's primary role is sustenance. Children know what they like and they know when they're not hungry. Eventually they will try new things and eat what is served to them. We can't accommodate their every dietary whim.

I've used this approach and I have two very un-picky, healthy eaters. If only I could get the kid to use a napkin at school instead of his shirt.
posted by LoriFLA at 8:21 AM on August 18, 2007

I have to say: just back off. Let her adjust to all aspects of school. Stop putting more attention and pressure on food. If you keep making such a big deal about it (by altering her food at home or punishing her by withholding treats) you will have escalated what will probably resolve on it's own.

She just started kindergarten which is quite a big deal when you're five. If she is like me, it can be hard to eat in a public situation. I really struggled to relax enough to eat in any kind of highly-charged environment. And a school lunchroom is definitely a stimulating environment.

If the problem is about manipulation, attention seeking or a power struggle (all of which seem like fairly harsh accusations) you are certainly encouraging the behavior by giving it so much of your focus.

I have three kids in school, two of which are excellent eaters most of the time. But at school or at large family functions they struggle to eat as much as usual. They don't complain and I don't make a big deal of it. They don't expect something special, they just make themselves a sandwich when they get home.
posted by rintj at 8:28 AM on August 18, 2007

My little girl has just started kindergarten and while she is doing well in terms of behaving and homework

While doing the above is a no-brainer for grownups, these things are huge and life-changing for five year olds.

I'm not suggesting she's stressed out, but it strikes me as entirely possible that she's too jazzed/energized from it all to sit down and perform what's essentially a biological function at a specified time. Hell, her whole concept of time is probably in total flux -- I've got a second grader who still doesn't quite get it.

So I'm with those who have said to wait and see, and flatline the issue at home (i.e., no post-school comforts but no fuss about it, either). Much of what you learn in kindergarten has nothing to do with curriculum, and this falls into that category.
posted by gnomeloaf at 8:41 AM on August 18, 2007

I suffered through major undiagnosed social anxiety throughout my childhood. My mother was also a stay-at-home mom and I wasn't very well socialized with kids outside my family. I was a mama's-girl, very shy and while my mom loved me, she enabled a lot of my behavior by catering to my shyness.

One of the things I had a hard time doing was eating with and in front of "strangers." I remember feeling incredibly vulnerable while I was eating and the fact that I had a hard time making friends made the issue worse. Carrying my tray through a crowded cafeteria and then sitting at a table with kids I hadn't figured out how to relate to while I ate felt really traumatic to me. When I got to junior high, I would skip lunch entirely to go hang out in the library by myself. By the end of junior high, I had made friends to eat lunch with and the problem mostly disappeared.

The main thing that would have helped me in grade school would have been having better social skills and being able to get out of my shell enough to notice that the other kids were all eating their lunches.
posted by pluckysparrow at 8:46 AM on August 18, 2007

Most kids at your daughter's age are picky about what they eat. My son, now 13, spent most of his time around that age eating pasta, a food only rarely offered at his preschool for lunch. So when at preschool, he would occasionally eat what was offered but often not. Eventually, he became a more adventurous eater both at home and at school/friends houses.

I understand why you might be concerned about your daughter but if she is generally in good health and generally happy I wouldn't make too big a deal about it and eventually things will resolve themselves without intervention. IMHO withholding special food at home falls in that category (making too big a deal of it). If the preschool is making it an issue (she doesn't eat fast enough?) then I think they need to have some patience - there should be enough flexibility in the schedule to let her finish eating, when she does eat, without making her feel pressured. If she is an only child, she may, as you say, find all of the activity at the lunch table a bit overwhelming or watching what the other kids are doing is just a lot more interesting than eating her lunch and if this is what is going on, she will eventually get used to it.

More generally, kids go through all kinds of phases with food, clothes, friends, going to the bathroom, interests and so on. For my three children, none of these phases were sufficiently outside what is reasonable for me to be concerned and I think kids going through phases of some sort is pretty normal.

Good luck!
posted by bluesky43 at 10:20 AM on August 18, 2007

It's not a control game. It's a control issue. Your daughter wants to control something in her life. Food is easy enough to do that with, and refusing to eat very quickly reverses power roles. I'm not suggesting you need to stage a full on intervention for the kid, but please, give her a sense of agency in her life, or find out why she doesn't feel like she has "enough" control.

And to really scare the pants off you, dig up some academic articles on the young ages now associated with serious eating disorders. These problems are not (necessarily) about being thin. They're about being in control. If you try to abruptly take this away from her she'll "show you" by being better at controlling food (or something else, like cutting herself - or something) than you are.
posted by bilabial at 12:09 PM on August 18, 2007

Uh, I didn't mean for that to sound so...scaremonger-y.

Just wanted to point out that this type of stuff can be a symptom of a bigger problem. Not trying to say that you're all smothery or anything. I wanted to point out that this is bigger than most parents realize until it's too late.
posted by bilabial at 12:11 PM on August 18, 2007

Check out Lunch In A Box. If you use some of the ideas from the site, she won't be able to resist eating your food!
posted by HotPatatta at 12:20 PM on August 18, 2007

She really will eat when she is hungry. I don't like wasted food, either, but there's no reason nowadays to force kids to finish their food or clean their plates. Serving sizes are huge in most restaurants! She eats slow because, as you say, she is trying to avoid having to eat everything and being nagged about it when she doesn't. If she is otherwise healthy, let this issue go.

Personally, I don't think sending in a lunch is backing down. I would probably do this at her age (in fact, I did, with my kids). However, I wasn't lucky enough to have a great kindergarten with healthy lunches like you do. If you don't want to start making lunches for her every day, she won't starve if you just keep on doing what you are doing.

Again, I would suggest not worrying about this one little issue in her life. She is adapting well otherwise. At five, there is very little she can feel in control of and this is all she has. I'm of the opinion that a little rebelling is healthy, and she's following all the important rules.
posted by misha at 12:28 PM on August 18, 2007

I think she'll eat if and when she is hungry. Give her a good breakfast. This provides the foundation for the day and ensures that she can learn properly. Provide morning and afternoon snacks. People are better suited to eating small meals anyway. Don't make the noon meal an issue. Don't show up to help her eat it. Just ignore it for a while and see what happens.

And perhaps your daughter or your family take more time to enjoy a meal than others do. I was never able to eat my lunch in the allotted 15 or 20 minutes in a public setting. I still can't. I have no trouble eating. I just cannot wolf down much food at once. Maybe your daughter takes a little longer to eat. (But that doesn't sound like the problem.)
posted by acoutu at 2:57 PM on August 18, 2007

From what you said it sounds like there is more to the issue than just this, and this is a pretty obvious reason, but have you considered that maybe she just doesn't like the food? Maybe you didn't have school lunches, but it hasn't been that long for me, and I remember very clearly how disgusting they always were. The stuff on the menus may sound good, but even at good schools say, 'spaghetti and meatballs' usually doesn't resemble anything close to what you'd have at home.

But even if she doesn't like the food, it still sounds like there are some control/anxiety issues, as others have mentioned.
posted by catatethebird at 3:44 PM on August 18, 2007

I'm probably just echoing everyone else, but it sounds to me like somehow (perhaps she was sick and didn't eat for a few days), she realized that hey, I don't eat and mommy comes back to me. Maybe she thinks that if she doesn't eat now, maybe mommy will come have lunch with her every day.
posted by IndigoRain at 5:25 PM on August 18, 2007

Maybe you could get her used to eating alone in a safer environment like her house. Leave a snack for her to eat, but have her eat it when she is alone. Then she'll learn that it's fun and satisfying and okay to eat even if you guys aren't around, but she won't have to deal a tthe same time with all the other distractions out there.

Also, speaking as an ADHD kid who is now an ADHD adult. As a child I was always the last out of the classroom, the last out of the showers from swim practice, the last one to be packed, the last to come in from recess, and I very often forgot to eat my lunch and was surprised to find it in my bag later that day (even though i enjoyed eating all the time). You might want to keep your eyes peeled and see if this is manifesting in other similar ways. She might be delaying on eating her lunch because her senses are so overwhelmed by interactions with the other students and the hectic environment that she honestly forgets until the end of lunch to eat something.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:13 PM on August 18, 2007

Obviously, this is strictly anecdotal, but I remember when I first went to school and was expected to eat lunch, the various smells in the lunchroom turned my stomach. It didn't smell like home, and there was the mixed aroma of the various foods other kids had brought from home along with the hot lunch of the day. It was a long time before I reconciled myself to that aroma and was able to eat a full lunch. Until that time, I'd eat the orange my mom had packed with lunch, or maybe the dessert that came with the prepared meal. Anything else made me gag.

It could be that your child is upset by the noise/confusion/smells of a communal lunch room. Again, just a wild thought, YMMV.
posted by Oriole Adams at 7:03 PM on August 18, 2007

I thank you all for your insight and postings. She is our first child, so each experience is new to myself and my husband. Thank you for getting me to see part of what she is going through at school. I am sure she is taking some time to adjust and she has expressed before how she is nervous at school.

I keep some of your suggestions in mind, especially those who stated that my husband and I should not make a big deal out of it because if it is an attention issue, then she is definitely getting what she wants. Thank you for all of your input.
posted by dnthomps at 10:57 PM on August 18, 2007

I'm from australia, and a packed lunch is normal here (it's rare to get a lunch provided by the school - as in, I can't think of a school that does so, offhand).

So mum dutifully packed lunches for me for the first couple of months. I didn't eat them. I threw them away every day. Because I simply wasn't hungry. Mum gave up, showed me where the cupboard was, and that was that.

Throughout primary and most of high school, this pattern continued. I *might* have a bread roll during the day, and maybe a piece of fruit, but usually, I just didn't eat, because I just wasn't hungry. Often I didn't eat breakfast either - the family meal at dinner, perhaps a snack in late afternoon, was more than enough.

This didn't hold during puberty, of course, when I went off the rails in the other direction.
posted by ysabet at 4:23 AM on August 20, 2007

For what it's worth I almost never ate my lunch at school until I was in college. I was never a picky eater outside of school, I just didn't feel like eating during the school day. I didn't like the school lunches (too greasy) and I didn't like food that had been sitting around for hours.

My mom essentially packed a lunch for my best friend for all of high school.

I wouldn't sweat it.
posted by lisaici at 9:33 PM on August 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

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