It’s such a bummer when picky eaters won’t eat the school lunch! But, it’s possible for your picky eating kiddo to learn to eat the lunch that’s provided. Check out these 7 tips to learn how….
Sometimes you don’t have a choice. Some daycare’s actually mandate that kids eat the lunch they provide at school. Other times, a healthy and nutritious lunch is provided as part of expensive tuition. And, more often than not, you might just want your kid to eat the school lunch, not something you have to pack, because it’s easier.
Plus, your kid eats a wider variety of foods when they eat the lunch that’s provided.
None of that is a problem unless you have a picky eater. And, a lot of people of do, with estimates ranging anywhere from 30-50% of all kids experiencing some type of picky eating.
If you’ve got a picky eater, than you know it’s more likely to snow in July than it is for your child to happily eat the school lunch.
Picky eaters are determined. They can almost never be persuaded (not that I’d want you to try, read why here). And, most will go hungry rather than eat one of the foreign foods that the lunch lady is serving up.
As a feeding therapist, I get it.
But, I’ve got 7 tips that could break down those walls that your picky eater has raised. It will take some time, consistency, and a little belief that it’s possible, even for your child, to eat the school lunch!
Why Are School Lunches So Dang Hard for Picky Eaters?
You’ve probably already realized that the biggest hurdle with the school lunch is that the food isn’t the same. Even if your kid’s cafeteria serves pizza and chicken nuggets, favorites of their’s, they aren’t exactly the same. In fact, they could be pretty different. Besides the food being a different brand, it could be cooked different (think crunchier or softer than they’re used to), and it might taste different too.
The committed picky eater realizes all of this instantly, which is the primary reason most opt not to partake. Read more in Why Kids Don’t Eat.
But, that’s not the only hurdle. For some kids, the cafeteria or group eating experience is very stimulating. The noise, activity, and smells might be a lot to manage.
They might have to work hard just to keep their cool through lunch and adding the pressure of walking through a lunch line or eating challenging food is more than they can handle.
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7 Tips to Get Your Picky Eater the School Lunch
Even though you may have never thought about it, you probably have some insight on if there are in fact any other challenges that your child is facing at lunch time. And, that brings us to our first tip for getting your child to eat their school lunch:
Tip #1: Figure out everything that’s difficult about school lunch and address it.
You know your child better than anyone. Do they ever get overwhelmed by bright lights, loud sounds, crowds, following multiple step directions, smells, or watching other people eat? If so, then theres a good chance this is hard for them at school.
Each of those challenges has a variety of solutions that can range from getting permission to wear a hat at lunch to block the light to being the last kid to go through the line so they don’t get jostled.
Or maybe, the solution for your child is that they sit at a less crowded table, or at the end of the table?
Maybe you give your child a leather bracelet with essential oils on it that they can smell when food smells become too overwhelming (you can check one out here)?
The point is that you figure out what the challenges are and find a way to address them. The best way to do this is to talk to your child and ask them, they’ll likely surprise you with the suggestions they have. You may also need to talk to the teacher, get them on your team, and let them know your concern and goal of having them eat the school lunch.
Keep in mind that many of the challenges I listed above are related to sensory processing. That’s an important piece to bring up with your child’s teacher. If you want to understand sensory better head to What is a Sensory Diet.
Of course, not every picky eater experiences these additional challenges in the lunch room, but many do, so make sure you spend some time here considering it and talking with your child.
Tip #2: Pick a Goal and Tell Your Child!
Let’s face facts.
Your child obviously isn’t going to starting eating every school lunch overnight. That might never happen. But, wouldn’t it be awesome if they could eventually pick a couple every week that they can eat?
I think sometimes, as the parents, we get so overwhelmed imagining the ideal situation, in this case, eating school lunch everyday, that we miss how to start taking small steps to at least start moving in the right direction.
That’s why I want you to set a goal for something that you think you can realistically work on.
For a lot of picky eaters, this could be choosing one lunch a month that they’ll order or have served to them. Maybe, it’s once a week for your child? There’s no right and wrong here in terms of what you decide, but make sure you let your child know that this is your goal. And, let them know WHY you’re working towards to it.
I’d highly recommend talking to them about this at a neutral time, away from meals when they’re less likely to be defensive.
Tip #3: Plan the Lunch They’ll Order Together
If you’ve set a goal to try the school lunch 1x a month, at the beginning of the month, when you’re not rushed, sit down and go over the school lunch menu together.
Expect that your child is going to get overwhelmed.
Encourage them to circle 3-5 lunches that they’d consider as a “maybe”. This helps them narrow down the choices. If your goal is once a week, then you’d go over the lunch menu on the weekend and scratch out 3 definite “no’s”. Either way, once they can focus on just a few choices, they’ll be better able to make a decision.
As you help your child make their selection, you’re going to want to point out similarities to the foods they typically eat. Something like, “Tuesday’s lunch has two crunchy foods.”
Highlighting those aspects will decrease their anxiety over the upcoming lunch. As the day approaches, you’ll want to make sure you remind them that it’s coming so they have plenty of time to prepare for it.
Tip #4: Think Outside the Box
With so many kids having allergies these days, cafeteria’s are used to making special accommodations, or are already making them for another child. Your child may be able to get tacos with their meat and cheese on the side, but you don’t know until you ask.
A huge food issue for picky eaters is foods mixing together. Fortunately most schools have trays or disposable plates that are already broken down into sections. But, a lot of the entree’s themselves are still mixed foods. Asking for foods to be separated won’t work for chicken pot pie, but it can for lots of other foods.
If your child is able to eat a deconstructed school lunch, that’s a huge win. Over time you can work towards removing the special accommodation.
Tip #5: Send Them a Little Comfort
It can be helpful to send in some fun forks, plastic animal toothpicks (check them here), or a favorite drink. While this too is a little out of the ordinary, having something fun and/or familiar, may help your child relax and eat the different foods.
In some cases, even an additional snack is helpful, although I’d avoid that if you’re able to. I typically only recommend this option if a child is low weight or will literally eat nothing. By sending the snack, you’re ensuring that they’ll have something they eat, if they totally refuse the school lunch. It’s still beneficial for them to receive the lunch, and be pushed out of their comfort zone.
You can slowly fade these “extras” out as they become more comfortable with and accept the school lunch.
Tip #6: Buddy Up!
Is there another child in class that your kid really likes? Someone they’re friends with? Ask your child if they’re friend ever eats the school lunch, if so, you might have an in.
Keep in mind that if your child has assigned seats in the cafeteria, that you’ll want to pick someone that they’re sitting by.
Depending on the age of your child, either ask your child to pick a day with their friend when they can both order the same thing or reach out to the parents and ask when their kid will be buying a school lunch. Hype this up for your child! You could say something like, “Oh that’s awesome, you and Luca are both going to get the chicken nuggets and french fries. It’s fun when you can do something with your friends.”
Tip #7: Keep Trying!
The average picky eater is going to need a little bit of time.
The extreme picky eater could need a lot of time.
It’s so important for your own mental health to realize and remind yourself that eating is hard for them. Food likely has hurt them in the past (illnesses, allergies, etc.) or has been super unpleasant because of the taste or textures (sensory issues related to food).
Don’t expect it to happen on the first try, or even the second. If you’re worried about them not eating, then make sure they have a big breakfast that morning and send in the snack for that peace of mind as you get started.
Remember to ask your child what will help them eat the school lunch. They’ll think of things you never could.
Are you ready to give school lunches a try?
Tell me in the comments and share your goal, I’d love to hear it and when you announce it publicly, it allows you to take a stand and step in to making it happen!
More Help if Your Are Straight Up Overwhelmed with Picky Eating…
The truth is that extreme picky eating is a problem that runs deep. There isn’t a quick tip or trick, BUT it can be dramatically improved. You’ve just got to have the right tools. I have a free workshop where I teach you my top 3 tools, and they’re total game changers. Want a seat?
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 15 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.