The School Cafeteria: Hurry Up and EAT!
Most parents tell me that their elementary school child has 20 to 25 minutes to enter the school cafeteria, search for her 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 typically, 7 to 8 different options!
Picture this: Your little first grader searches for spot in a sea of tables, newly found lunchbox in hand. She squeezes in between her 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 or perhaps a child with special needs, that still 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:
- 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. Another favorite is the Yumbox®, where the single tray is divided into ½ cup portions designed for the key food groups: Fruit, Veggies, Grains, Protein and Dairy. Both options are quick to open and not as overwhelming as a lunchbox filled to the brim with individual plastic bags, containers and/or drippy fruit cups with tricky foil lids
- 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 the night before – once again, get them involved and they are more likely to eat it later. For some kids, cutting a sandwich into a larger, fun shape like a dinosaur, keeps the conversation and the eating on the same track. But, for those kids who tend to just eat a sandwich and skip the other items, try cutting the sandwich into small pieces with a FunBite® so the child alternates “grabbing” a variety of foods, much like a mini-smorgasbord. Remember, you don’t need to send a whole sandwich when sending half leaves room in little bellies for other key food groups.
- Include a power- packed 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. For elementary school age kids, refillable pouches are another option for healthy smoothie or puree blends. One of my favorites is the adorable 4.5 oz. Squooshi™, which is freezer and dishwasher safe and free of all the “bad-for-yous” like BPA, lead and phthalate. Recipes for kids of all ages can be found on the Squooshi website. Another terrific option is to fill a Sili Squeeze with Eeeze™ food pouch and freeze it with the cap on. Please note that the manufacturer does not recommend storing the Sili Squeeze™ in the freezer for an extended periods of time, but states on their website that “Sili Squeeze™ is the perfect lunch box addition to keep your child’s lunch cool and will be perfectly defrosted for lunch time!”
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 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?Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, treats children birth to teens who have difficulty eating. She is the author of Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids and the producer of the award-winning kids’ CD Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food! Melanie’s two-day course on pediatric feeding is approved by ASHA and includes both her book and CD for each attendee. She can be reached at Melanie@mymunchbug.com.