Let's take the pressure out of our children's lunchboxes
Updated: Feb 7
The school holidays have flown by and already we're back into the swing of school prep life. One of the most constant sources of stress for parents can be the daily grind of filling the lunchbox. Unavoidable for most of us, and a huge cause of angst for many.
Will they eat what I send? Will I be judged for what's in the box? How many days will that banana travel back and forth between our home and school?
The thought of our children being away for the day and hungry can be worrying.
If you are in the fortunate position to have a choice over what you put in your child's lunchbox, your biggest barrier to stress-free lunchboxes will likely be trust.
Trusting the school and teachers to offer a safe environment for learning about food, and trusting your child to do what's right for their own body. Here is how teachers and parents can work together to nurture that trust.
Why do we need to let go of the pressure?
To be honest, we had a really tough time when my daughter first started school. I've always raised her with the division of responsibility. So it's been her choice to decide how much or whether she wants to eat from what's been served (or put in her lunch box).
When she started school I quickly learnt there was a different set of rules at play. Children were expected to show teachers that they had finished the 'right proportion' of their lunch and eaten enough of the 'healthy food' before they were allowed to go and play.
There are a couple of reasons why I imagine this was happening. Teachers care wholeheartedly about children's well-being. It makes sense that they want well-fed children in their classrooms. Additionally, they are often under pressure from parents, to 'get their child to eat'.
Both parents and teachers are motivated by children's best interests. However, despite the best of intentions, the 'lunchbox police' approach can often have disastrous consequences.
When children are pressured to eat more or less, they are not listening to their own hunger and fullness cues. Children are born with an ability to self regulate and nourish their body in a way that's right for them. However, over time if they repeatedly override the instincts of their body to follow school rules (further incentivised by the promise or loss of playtime) they are losing an important skill. The ability to trust their own body.
In an attempt to counter unhelpful policing, families start developing coping strategies to get around school lunchbox rules. Parents have told me they often pack a secret extra lunch box as a backup just in case their child is super hungry come lunchtime. They fear packing it in the main lunch in case their child doesn't feel like eating much but gets pressured to empty their lunch box. Some children develop a plan for binning what they don't want without a teacher seeing.
A child under pressure who learns it's much easier to eat in excess of what they were hungry for so they can go and play, is being taught something problematic. This approach leads to lunchtimes being a time of disconnection and at worst it creates behaviours that are a precursor for more ingrained disordered eating.
Over time, along with losing trust comes feelings of shame and self-judgement about what is in their lunchbox or the way they eat. These strategies for hiding their food or overeating start our children on a very slippery slope. We have to ask- what is it we are all aiming for here? If our goal is health and happiness for our children, this is not the way to it.
Those first few weeks of school were tough in our house. My daughter got so distressed by the food policing policy that she didn't want to go to school. Tears, frustration, and frankly confusion. Imagine being raised for the first 5 years of your life believing "it's my body my choice" only to be told, "well, not at school."
She asked me to write a letter stating that she was in charge of her own body and could decide how much it needed. So I did just that, along with having a friendly chat with the principal. I've added a letter you're welcome to use when approaching your school.
On discussion with the school, they genuinely had no understanding of the potential for harm in their approach and had only intended to nourish children more as a result of these lunch box checks. They were really appreciative of being called into an open discussion about another way of doing things.
Don't be afraid to start this conversation with school, in my experience they're very open to learning and ultimately care about what's best for the children in their care.
Essentially, it comes down to this, no one can genuinely know another person's hunger. Our role as adults is to create a safe place for children to learn about food and their bodies. This relies on parents providing, to the best of their ability, a variety of food for their child to eat. For teachers, it is about providing a safe place for children to make choices about what they eat, from what has been provided.
Beyond that- we need to let the pressure go.
When teachers and parents are working in partnership on this, they will raise happy, confident eaters, who know how to trust their own body. That is the path to each child's best chance of health and happiness.
Top tips for a pressure-free lunchbox
Always pack a prefered food alongside any new foods.
Make sure your child can open any packets and containers.
Aim to have something from each of the food groups. As a caregiver, our job is to offer a variety and enough food that they will eat.
Pack enough of what you know they'll eat to ensure they can get their fill
Consider the weather. That salad sandwich might not be so appetizing once it's all soggy and has been sitting about in the sun.
In the heat using cool packs and bags with an ice pack will keep things fresh. These insulated lunch packs from The Sleep Store can help keep food at the intended temperature.
They also have these containers are great for keeping a warming soup hot in the winter.
Breakaway from the norm. We often send smoothies to school and love these insulated cups from Little Giants kids store.
Keep food talk neutral. Let food be food, not healthy or unhealthy, good or bad. Every food can have a place in a balanced diet.
If you are worried that your child is not eating at school, don't discuss these issues in front of your child. Email or call the teacher so you can talk openly about what might be happening.
Find out more about the school lunchtime policy- do the children have plenty of time to eat? Do they get to make choices around their food and how it is eaten? Don't be afraid to ask for a change.
Look at intake across the week. It is normal for children's appetite to fluctuate. If you are worried and would like a more in-depth assessment -contact me for a consultation
Teachers: If you want to change your schools approach to monitoring lunchboxes- check out our blog especially for you
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