How do I get my kid to eat more of her school lunch? Talk amongst yourselves.

Laptop Lunch @dampscribbler on Twitter asks:

How do I get my kid to eat more lunch at school? She’s bringing home 3/4 of what I give her. Never been a big eater, but wow!

Frustrating. It so happens that I have a kid with a bird-like appetite, and this is an ongoing issue (I won’t say “problem”) for us as well. Most of the school lunches I pack for her come home with a few bites gone, but, otherwise, untouched. She’s starving after school, and I wonder what her concentration must be like in the afternoon.

I’ve had to accept that her pattern of eating is different than the rest of the family’s — it always has been — so it’s no surprise that she’s not gobbling her lunch like majority of her classmates. This year, I’m doing some detailed investigation into what’s keeping her from eating at school. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far, with her help (she’s in second grade):

  • She is a slow, deliberate mover and eater, and the school’s 20-minute lunch period barely gives her time to open her lunchbox.
  • Her manual dexterity isn’t the greatest, and she struggles with hard-to-open containers or packaging.
  • She’s exceptionally sensitive to smell and texture.
  • She prefers frequent, small meals to occasional large meals.

Here’s what I’m doing about it, to start:

  • Making sure her lunchbox and containers inside are clean and easy to open. We practice opening containers at home.
  • Giving her smaller amounts, but more variety, cut into bite-sized pieces.
  • Respecting her sensitivity to smell and texture by avoiding bananas, fruit that gets mushy or brown, and sandwiches in closed bags.
  • I let her choose the school’s hot lunch once a week (there are a few meals she loves, strangely enough).
  • Packing nutrient- and calorie-dense snacks, and arranging with her teacher that she can eat them when she needs to.
  • Preparing a substantial after-school snack with stuff that she likes to eat but that doesn’t pass the smell/moosh test for the lunchbox.

It’s been a long process, and we’re only in mid-September. I hope to further refine my strategy as the year goes on.

Let’s talk! Do you have a sparse school lunch eater? What are your lunchbox strategies? Share in the comments or on Twitter (@ashadornfest) or Facebook.


  1. says

    I ‘motivated’ mine with threats. Either she eats more of her lunch, or I stop sending it. (Or flip it around – if she eats her lunch, I’ll reward her by continuing to pack it.) She made a valiant attempt for a while, and then went back to not eating. Now, she has to eat the school lunch every day – and guess what – she loves it! There’s more variety, and there are days when all she ate was the chocolate milk and jello cup, but the milk keeps her satisfied even when she doesn’t like the meal. But, I won’t pack lunches anymore if she won’t eat them. Slowness of movement and eating is a choice, and one that my daughter (in 1st grade) is old enough to grow beyond, at least as I see it.

  2. JD in Van says

    Mine is in grade 5 and still doesn’t consistantly eat her lunch. She too is a slow eatter and her school only allows for 15 minutes to eat lunch. I have found that letting her pack her own lunch helps a great deal and she’s been doing so since she was about 7. She has a much better idea of what kind of foods she’ll be able to eat in that short period of time and while I never think it’s enough… it is all she’ll eat. Also I have her take snacks she can take outside with her or eat before/after classes while she’s waiting to be picked up from school.

    Fortunately her teacher also lets them have drinks in class this year so she does always have a waterbottle on her desk and has the choice to have any juice or milk in the afternoon that she doesn’t have with her lunch.

  3. says

    My daughter eats pretty slowly too and textures are a big thing for her. You mentioned that textures and smells affect her eating–she may have sensory processing issues that an occupational therapist could help to identify. Look for other signs of sensory input distracting her from doing what she needs to do (sounds, lights, textures, foods). It’s possible that the school can make accommodations to allow her an afternoon snack break in the school office.

    It could also be that she’s just not hungry while she’s at school. While I understand that it’s every parent’s dream for their kid to eat meals when they are fed–let’s face it, we’re not always hungry at the same time, much less hungry to same degree. We can push the issue and try to force kids to fall in line, but hunger isn’t exactly something that can be conditioned.

    In the end, as long as she’s healthy and able to function, isn’t that the most important thing?

  4. says

    It’s so frustrating that the kids aren’t given enough time to eat – sometimes only 10 minutes, by the time they are settled at the table.

    I try to pack foods that are easy to eat and fun to put together. Instead of a sandwich, which may seem too big for the short amount of time they have, sometimes I’ll opt for tuna or egg salad with crackers on the side. Or maybe slices of salame or turkey w/ crackers. Veggies with dip are easy and fun to snack on too.

    My daughter even loves tortilla chips in one container, with beans and cheese in others – do it yourself mini tostadas.

    I also try to pack a balanced lunch – at least one fruit, protein, veggie and a carb.

  5. says

    Our preschooler is almost exactly as Asha describes above. She’s a good eater…when given enough time to do so. But she would prefer to be social with her girlfriends, and eats painfully slow. When we pick her up from school, rarely is more than 1/3 of her already-small lunch touched.

    Sometimes we just let her finish up lunch in the car or at home, although she really needs to be eating at school and get into that routine.

    One success…a variety of small things in bright colored cups!

    We put a few of our mini silicone baking cups into this SnapWare box we love. We fill them with grapes, cut veggies, nuts, crackers, cheese, etc. so that she has variety and gets what she needs (fruit, veg, protein, whole grain).

  6. says

    Great discussion! My 1st-grader seems to fit these descriptions as well (he’d frequently come home with lunch untouched). I am finding that he seems to be more likely to eat if everything is cut into bite-sized pieces – i.e. a PB&J sandwich cut into tiny squares; small chunks of fruit as well as grapes or cherry tomatoes or mini carrots; small crackers; etc. It seems that he would just take a look at a whole sandwich and think “there’s no way I have time to eat that” but when he sees lots of little pieces it somehow seems more do-able for him. Keep up the great discussion!

  7. Christy says

    I have an incredibly picky eater in 1st grade. Because she is so young, and because she’s cranky when she’s hungry and cranky = not paying attention, I basically fill her lunch with empty calorie crap I know she’ll eat.

    I fight the healthy food battles at home, but at school I’d rather her listen to her teachers even if it means sending in cupcakes and Lance crackers.

    Some non-traditional things we’ve had success with are do it yourself pizzas (look at a lunchable for inspiration – I used frozen bread dough to make small crusts). Egg noodles with butter. Cookie cutter sandwiches. Cheater chocolate cupcakes (mix devil’s food cake mix with 1 can pumpkin (nothing else) and bake at 350 for about 20-25 minutes). Cookie cutter watermelon. And that’s about it. I’ve tried getting her onto almonds or cashews because just a few will get them through the day, but she’s not having it. Good luck.

  8. says

    20 minutes for lunch would be a blessing at our school. My kids can not take that long to eat, because we have 1000 kids to get into the cafeteria, out to recess and back to their classrooms in a very short window. They can stay in the lunch room as long as they need to, but after 10 minutes, they begin to move the stragglers to another table. And no kid wants to miss out on recess and sit at a table without their friends, so they just pack up and head out after 5 minutes…. food gone or not. Mostly not!

  9. Planettina says

    Your mileage may vary, and this method can test your patience, but here is what works for us. Since first grade last year (our first year in public school), we gave my daughter a choice: eat school lunch or pack lunch yourself. We supervise the packing, of course, but when she makes the decision about which foods go into her lunch box, fewer of them come home uneaten. And she learns a little about nutrition along the way. We make sure that she has a mix of dairy, protein, healthy grains, and fruits and vegetables. We’ll see if this still works when the younger one starts packing her lunch in a year or so!

  10. says

    I let mine choose what they take for lunch from a “menu” I’ve made. They can choose a carb, a protein, a fruit or veggie and a treat. I made a list of the items they can choose and it helps a lot. Mine like to dip things too- bread sticks in red sauce, carrots in salad dressing, etc.

  11. says

    I don’t agree about slowness being a choice, at least not 100%. There’s dilly-dallying, and then there’s the natural speed at which different individuals go.

    I DO agree that we need to teach our kids to adapt in different situations. I ALSO think we have to pay attention to and respect who they are, and, if there are conflicts, to find a balance.

    Easier said than done.

  12. says

    We have a Goodbyn lunch box for our 2nd grader, it is a bit pricey to me but its very easy to use and he eats more of his lunch with it because there is one lid that fits over a divided bottom (sort of bento like and the lid keeps things sealed separately very well. We got it last year and it helped because I can send small amounts of a bunch of things and he eats more now. Today I threw in a mini yogurt cup that I had frozen, a homemade chocolate zucchini muffin, water, a cheese stick and crackers (not super healthy but good for my picky eater)

  13. says

    My very picky 1st grader just gets PB&J on challah every day.
    Every. Day.
    Plus yogurt in a tube because it’s easy to open & quick to eat.
    And then squeezable applesauce/carrot from Trader Joe’s.
    And then a tiny container of snack.
    With that unchanging formula, most gets eaten. As Christy said, you not only have to pick your battles but also the battle locations. For me, school isn’t it.

  14. says

    Wow, thanks everyone for a great discussion and great suggestions! She took soup to school this morning, we practiced to be sure she could remove the Thermos lid before I packed it. The first thing she told me about when I picked her up was how good the soup was and that she was able to get the lid off by herself, after a while. When I opened the Thermos about 2/3 of the soup was left, so I asked her if she felt like she got to eat as much as she wanted and she said yes. I think she just has a small appetite (I’ve been noticing that a lot over the summer but thought school might change it.) I definitely will be trying to “finger-size” more of her foods for a while and talk to her about how much she wants to eat. She is excited about trying her first “hot lunch” next week, which we picked from the menu. Her grade (First) eats very early, so the kids get to have a snack in the afternoon, which she says she is ready for at snacktime most days, so I’ll make sure that she gets good healthy snacks in her bag, too, as it seems like that’s an important part of her day.

    It seems the ridiculously short lunch is a problem in many schools, mostly because there are so many kids and the lunchroom can only hold 1/5 of them at a time. I’d love to see our school switch things around so that recess comes before lunch. We already have a “leisure lunch” table for the kids who take a little longer, but of course that means giving up recess time, which she has told me in no uncertain terms is important to her.

    Thanks again, everyone! So many great ideas!

  15. says

    I’m an elementary Music teacher, I have little ones myself, and I do First grade lunch duty every day. I see kids eat a fraction of their lunch day after day, and usually just the Cheetos, fruit by the foot, and chocolate milk that is sent along with the sandwich and apple. (The sandwich gets two bites, the apple gets thrown away.) There are time constraints that are unavoidable, but most of the issue comes from the need to socialize trumping the need to eat. You have to make lunch pack a punch and be as quick and easy as possible.
    Some tips from a representative of the people who are watching them eat and care what they put in their bodies, too:
    *Cut the sandwich into small bite or at least quarters. You don’t have to lose the crust unless it’s an issue, since it has extra vitamins, but don’t give them a giant sandwich.
    * Do not send anything that that would consider a “snack”. Fruit snacks, fruit by the foot, little candy bars, etc. That’s what they’ll eat to satisfy their initial hunger. The rest of the lunch you lovingly packed gets to compete for attention with the kid who’s across the table throwing paper wads.
    *Little containers they can open themselves that are reusable – those are great. Trash pick-up is a pain, and if they don’t have to get up to throw away their trash, they have more time to eat. Plus they don’t have to struggle with packaging.
    *There is nothing wrong with sending plain milk or water.

    Again, I watch them (not) eat and it drives me nuts. Good teachers and lunch aides watching them encourage them to eat healthily, but there’s only so much you can do.

  16. says

    Our rule is that you need to finish what was packed in your lunch for your after-school snack or you don’t get anything else. One of my sons is a picky eater and also socializes too much at school to eat enough. He used to always come home with most of his lunch and start begging immediately for a snack. Part of it seems to be that he just doesn’t have enough time to concentrate on eating. But he was also coming home assuming he’d get a “snack” like pretzels or crackers when he got in and could give up on the rest of his lunch options (carrots or an apple). Now that he knows he has to finish his lunch before he can get anything else, he’s started to eat more at school (and complain less at home!)

  17. says

    Hopefully your child has a receptive teacher that understands how to make accomodations for different kids in school.

    As a teacher, I see a huge difference in my kids according to what and how much they eat. Luckily, I’m able to identify the students who need that extra time, and we privately talk about how they can finish their lunch in class if they’re able to work at the same time. And it totally works!

    I mean, how many times are we eating while reading or typing on the computer? Why should it be different for kids? Some kids that need more time are totally able to do this.

    By making the teacher aware of this struggle, coming up with a plan together, and having an honest talk with your child about how eating in the classroom should look and feel like, you’ll be on the path to success.

    I’m keeping my fingers crossed that you have a teacher who is receptive to this. We always talk in my classroom about how everyone is different, has different styles of learning, and learners have special rights based on their styles. The rights are private, but they know they’re fair.

    The kids accept this because it’s out in the open.

    I know the most important thing is to raise kids that love learning, and I do. But I also have to mention that my test scores are consistently ranked the highest in the district for my grade level, and I honestly believe it’s because my kids are able to learn in a comfortable, safe environment that meets their needs.

    Good luck!

  18. says

    Fantastic topic and lots of interesting comments.

    We’ve got similar problems.

    I’ve found small bit size pieces are a hit.
    Second the silicone cup suggestion with little portions in each cup.
    We got a Thermos pot to hold soup, two minute noodle and warm things in winter and in summer it takes custard, yogurt and other cold items. I :heart: the Thermos brand Foogo pot because it is just the right size for a pack of cuppa soup mix and stainless steel so durable and easy to clean.
    My fussy 7yo likes to take slices of cold toast to dip into her soup. Easier for her than a spoon.
    I bake muffins in mini muffin trays and then freeze. Easy to grab and throw into lunch bag, they defrost by snack time and are the right size for kids mouths.

    I also ask my girls to finish off the contents of their lunch box before they get anything else for afternoon tea. Helps reduce food waste, also teaches my girls that they don’t have to eat all their food if they feel full at lunch / snack time – it is okay to put something away to finish later, don’t just eat because the food is there.

  19. Monica says

    I spent too much time this summer fretting about packing a lunch for my son, who just started kindergarten a couple weeks ago. Eventually I decided that he’d be more likely to eat it if he packed it, and so far it’s working really well. There are some guidelines he’s expected to follow, but he’s getting the hang of it, and most evenings he tells me that he had “the best lunch of anyone in his class.”

  20. says

    My kids are super picky and won’t eat normal lunch items like “sandwiches” or “soup.” It’s frustrating. I recently took the lunch packing over from my husband, who in his frustration was packing a lunch like fritos, pistachios, moonpies and chocolate milk. Results were: early meltdowns and behavior upsets in class.

    He was making fun of me for this, but I started writing down —in pencils, on post-its— what I’m packing in each kids’ lunch bag and at the end of the day, crossing out what they don’t eat. We talk about the uneaten item and I hear, I didn’t have time, or it smelled funny/wrong temperature/looked slimy.

    We are using Glad Mini-size plastic containers in their reusable, insulated bags, so they’re not dealing with lots of cleanup. The containers do help you see what they don’t eat, simply by being reusable.

  21. says

    Heather, you are lucky in a bunch of ways, regardless of the monotony. My kids won’t eat a single one of the items you mention; closest is maybe a raw carrot or sliced apple. If I try giving them the same single item (i.e. cantaloupe) for more than three days in a row, they stop eating it, claiming that they got sick of it. Quite a challenge.

    That does sound like a good, well rounded lunch, FWIW!

  22. says

    You all got me wondering about how I can get my kids to help pack their own lunches. How do you make that work? I think I can at least get them to make selections—packing seems unlikely.

    Here’s where my brain went: since my kids’ really have limited things they’ll eat, and I’ve already *OCD-alert* made lists of them and categorized them into food groups (for our nutritionist—I needed help!), the next step could be making flash cards.

    Each flash card could have “MAIN ITEM” or “CARB” or “FRUIT” at the top and a photo of the food item (easy enough to find on the Internet). Then with color coding or something, I could tell them that they had to have one each of blue, red, green, yellow, orange.

    I’m giving this a try.

  23. Buggsmom says

    Reality Check Time!!! I was blown away with the “let her eat a hot lunch once a week” comment. What is wrong with ‘letting’ them eat a hot school lunch every day? Is it the stigma of school lunches being for ‘poor’ people? Ridiculous!!! My kids eat a school lunch every day, they get a balanced, hot meal that even in the 15 minute lunch hour (including standing in line time) they can finish because they are not tracking down their lunch boxes, they are not opening containers and baggies and they are not spending time trying to trade out with their friends, because everyone has the same things…. THey have NO behavior issues because they are satisfied. And our already overloaded teachers to not have to take time out of their schedule to attend to the one or two children who are such picky and slow eaters that they have to have special ‘me-time’ snacks so they can concentrate for the rest of the day.

    My kids have the choice of school lunches or packing them themselves. There are only 1 or 2 offerings they do not like from school, therefore the boys only pack their own lunches 6 or 8 times a year.

    My 4th grader even prefers ordering a chef salad from the lunch line than bringing a sandwich from home, because he’s learned from infancy to eat a wide variety of things. If you don’t allow them to be picky eaters as toddlers, they will not be picky eaters as school-agers. My 3 year old even prefers steamed broccoli to french fries any day!

    I understand the slow eater thing and the texture thing as that describes me to a tee, always has. But my parents would never have expected the school to set aside time in the afternoon schedule for me to have a snack because I didn’t feel the need to eat during my lunch hour; and I turned out fine. Didn’t starve then, have no eating issues now.

    I just think you guys are making this WAY too difficult on yourselves. Schools are required to offer a balanced meal. Do you really think that sending them cupcakes and crackers is better than “letting” them eat a hot lunch at school?

    • Diane says

      Hello…perhaps since you think as a concerned mom I am making it, “way too hard” on myself because I am fretting about how little my kids eat at lunch time when I pack their lunches….maybe I should think you are a lazy unconcerned parent because you just let your kid eat food that you have no idea where it came from, how long its been there, or even what it really has in it. I get lunch menus…some of those meals sound pretty vague.

      Now that we have the finger pointing higher than thou stuff done lets face some real facts here…

      My kids’ school lunch costs $2.50 each.

      I have three kids.

      that would be $7.50 a day

      $37.50 a week

      $161.25 per month (averaging 4.3 weeks)

      and $1612.50 per year…on food that I have no idea how it’s being prepared, who is preparing it…(because most schools have horrible turnover rates when it comes to cafeteria staff fyi)…how long they guarantee their ingredients….or even if what they call a “hot” lunch is even “hot”….

      And fyi—-balanced doesn’t always mean healthy. McDonald’s offers balanced meals. Schools since I was a kid have ALWAYS set time aside for elementary children to have snack.

      My final statement here is this….Don’t be ignorant.

      • Asha Dornfest says

        Hopping in with a tone adjustment here — this is a no judgement zone. Diane — the order of these comments got messed up when I made some website back-end changes, so you might not have seen my comments elsewhere addressing this.

        That said — thank you for your comment — cost is a factor we’d be silly to ignore.

  24. says

    Right, & I was so distracted by this I’ve gone and printed my 45 flash cards!! I can’t wait to try them on the kids tonight. The bit that will help combat the overwhelming-ness of being confronted by all those cards is that I’ll remove all the items that aren’t currently in our pantry.

    This will be brilliant!

  25. says

    Okay, now you’re just flaming everyone. “If you don’t allow them to be picky eaters as toddlers, they will not be picky eaters as school-agers.” Is not a true statement. Your kids must be angels.

    My daughter would gag and throw up all over the table if she put something into her mouth that didn’t agree with her from age 3 on. She is the most stubborn thing on the planet. If this is “allowing” her to be picky, I’d like to see you try with her. My most hard-ass girlfriends have had her over to dinner to see if they could help. She’d prefer to go on a starvation strike if we try to fall on our sword about eating a particular food or nothing at all.

    Her brother was raised the exactly the same way and eats anything.

  26. says

    Vitamins, antioxidants, I knew it was one of those strong-kid-building things. Thanks Christy!

    PS – from today’s lunch duty experience, I’d like to add: If you don’t send snack money, they can’t eat snacks. If you send snack money and get pissy because they bought ice cream but didn’t finished the apple you packed, well…duh.

  27. says

    Variety is overrated! I ate the same lunch every day of my school career…ate a diverse diet at home. It was a great balance and worked for me AND my mom. But then I was never a picky eater.

    If you’ve found something that works for your kids, stick with it.

  28. says

    Agree that quality of school lunch varies widely between schools. Also, some kids just won’t eat that food.

    I used to think pickiness was learned behavior until I had my own kids. I will say that some kids are picky and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. You can keep offering, keep exposing, etc. but you can’t force food down a kid’s throat. Hopefully they’ll grow out of it.

    If school hot lunch works for you and your kids, great! But please don’t judge parents for whom it doesn’t work.

  29. JL says

    Meh. It’s pretty shaky science. I would think it’s more about food waste then some tiny health benefit.