My Child Hates School Lunch

My little boy is five years old and in all-day kindergarten. He hates to eat lunch at school. We have tried peanut butter and jelly, tuna fish, cheese and bologna -- all with no luck. My son will only eat bagels or homemade pumpkin bread with cream cheese. He says he wants Lunchables, but I use these once a week as a reward for being a good listener. When he gets home from school, he eats nonstop (crackers, popcorn, cereal) and then he won't eat dinner. I am out of ideas and worried about him. Any suggestions would be appreciated!


Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

There are any number of reasons why kids won't eat at school. It may be that lunch is scheduled too early in the day, and they aren't yet hungry or that they ate a large breakfast. It may be the atmosphere is too stressful, or it may be that they don't like the food being served. Five-year-olds can be finicky eaters to begin with, and at school, there is little a parent can do to try and get their child to eat.

It sounds like you have tried what you could to pack a lunch that he will eat, but nothing suits. Therefore, I suggest you try some unconventional ideas. Perhaps you can switch lunch and after school snack. A small snack at school may seem more manageable to him, and then he can have "lunch" when he comes home. Foods that are in small sizes and quantity would be good foods to try. Pack foods you know he likes.

Some appropriate items to choose from include:

  • a stick of string cheese
  • a few crackers
  • a few sections of a peeled orange
  • a small cluster of grapes
  • two or three peanut butter cracker sandwiches
  • a small box of raisins
  • baby carrot sticks
  • a couple of celery sticks filled with peanut butter
  • half of a bagel with light cream cheese
  • small pumpkin muffin (search around for a healthier recipe in many of the low fat cookbooks on the market)
  • small cup of cottage cheese,
  • small thermos with about a half cup of soup, or leftover macaroni and cheese
  • mini meatballs
  • a quarter of a sandwich
  • small container of dry cereal
  • small container of yogurt or low fat pudding.

I think if you approach this as a snack, your son may be more willing to eat the lesser amount of offered food. This should get him through until the snack offered to the class. Try and be sure that he gets some protein in that snack. Be sure he has money to buy a carton of milk. Then, when he gets home from school, offer him a small to medium sized lunch that has a definite beginning and end. Avoid allowing him to eat continuously as you say he does now.

All meals and snacks should be loosely scheduled. Children with set meal and snack times do better nutritionally. It also helps to avoid the habit of constantly snacking. If he eats a small lunch right after school, he is more apt to be hungry for dinner than if he gets home and eats all afternoon, filling up on snack type foods. You will need to be firm about prohibiting the habit on constantly snacking. If you enlist your son's help with this new approach, than he is more apt to be cooperative. For example, let him help pick out the foods you pack for his school snack (from amongst the healthy foods you will permit), then let him also decide his lunch items when he gets home.

There is a real danger in using food as a reward or punishment for behavior. For example, food used as a reward (the Lunchables in your son's case) tends to enhance the attractiveness of the food offered. Food used for rewards or withheld for punishment gives a role to food that it was not meant to have, and also encourages the development of a relationship with food that is not based on hunger or satiety, or on health and wellness. Therefore, I hope that you can find a more appropriate reward for your son's listening other than food. Perhaps you have some fun stickers, or some special privilege you can offer him, such as an extra bedtime story.

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