Both of my boys have always struggled a lot with eating. There are so many sensory aspects to food, and they have difficulty with things that look new, certain tastes, certain textures, etc. It isn’t anything out of the norm to hear that a child is a picky eater, but the type of picky I am talking about is that above just the “I would like to eat chicken nuggets everyday” type of thing. I’m talking if the pizza is cut in squares and not triangles then my boys will not touch it kind of picky. We have pushed a lot over the years to work on expanding the diets of my boys and working on at least trying new or nonpreferred foods without breaking out into a meltdown. Personally, we use a lot of techniques we learned from feeding therapy to get us through our mealtimes at home. But once they enter into school then the already difficult idea of feeding just gets that much more complicated.
Packing for school is tricky. The number of options you have to send with your child that in my mind constitute a healthy and hot lunch are very limited. Buying a good thermos may open up your options a little but keeping things to a temperature they like and having them come out of the thermos looking the same as the way you would serve them at home is still difficult. Cold or room temperature options are easier, but I feel like that really limits some of the main macros that you want your child to be eating, especially if you have kids like mine that struggle with foods like cold meat. I had prepackaged items I could send with them which I knew they would eat, but their non-pushback options always tend to be those that aren’t overly healthy, and I didn’t want them to just be filling up on junk 5 days either.
We could play this shuffle and look at the menu each day to see if there were options that my boys would eat served hot by the school. The tough part is, even if the school is serving a food item that my boys prefer, chances are the item at school looks different than the one they get at home. Bringing us right back to square one.
What to do?
How my boys eat at school is a big concern for me, so the best thing I did was make that concern known to the school, to their teachers, and most importantly to their IEP team. IEPs are not only put in place to address the areas of academics, but they are also put there to address the school day as a whole for your child. So, if you are concerned with how your child will eat and your child qualifies for an IEP, put that in the IEP and work out with the school how to address that issue. If the lunchroom is too loud and that affects how your child will eat, put in that they can wear noise-canceling headphones or go to another room for lunch. If your child has issues watching other people eat, work in accommodations for that such as putting a temporary blockade up or once again eating in another room if necessary. If your child has sensory issues with the food served and you need someone to help assist your child through lunch, then make those requests and get what you want outlined in the IEP.
For us this means that someone helps my son through lunch by giving reminders to try those nonpreferred foods and then they can give him preferred food items that I send in with him as a reward for trying or eating those new school foods. It worked out so well with my oldest son that he no longer needs assistance at lunch and will order and eat school lunch on his own now, although I still pack some of those reward items that his teachers are free to give him if he does well. Since we saw such success with my oldest, we made the request to have the same setup put in place for my youngest who just started kindergarten, and after only a few weeks in school he is already trying a variety of school foods. It will likely take some time to get to where his brother is, but I am confident that he will work his way up too.
Healthy eating is a huge part of having a successful school day. How a child eats will affect their attitude, focus, energy level and so much more. Not eating all day is not good. Neither is feeling like you have to send pure junk food in the hopes that at least they will eat something and not be hungry all day. If food is an area of struggle, then don’t be afraid to ask the school for help. The way that your child eats at school will quickly become a routine and we want to make sure that having a healthy and filling lunch is what they get used to. Know that you have more than just a standard pack or buy school lunch scenario. Ask for the necessary accommodations that will help your child have a successful lunch break and onto a productive school day.