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How Can I Help a Picky Eater at School?

Heading off to school is an exciting milestone for kids and their parents, but for many families, it also can cause more than a little stress. Along with the normal concerns, like if your kid will make friends or experience separation anxiety, you may also be worried about their eating habits at lunchtime where you'll have little to no control over what they're actually eating (or not). That can be especially true if your child is a picky eater.

In HelloJoey’s “Picky Eating, Healthy Eating” kit, we look at some of the common reasons little kids are picky about what they’ll eat and explain how picky eating is actually normal and healthy in most cases. We also offer specific, actionable techniques that come from research and the experts to help you handle picky eating as your kid heads off to school, giving you a little peace of mind even when your child returns home with that apple you sent for lunch.

What causes picky eating – and why is it worse at school?

Think about the last time you were in a new situation. Maybe you started a new job, flew to a country you’d never visited, or found yourself amongst a bunch of other parents at back-to-school orientation. You were probably at least a little nervous, and those butterflies in your tummy may have either made it impossible for you to eat – or led you to scarf an entire package of your favorite snack for comfort and courage.

Your kid goes through the same thing when they’re faced with something new, and it happens to them a lot more frequently. Not only are they constantly bombarded with new flavors, textures, and scents from new foods, but they’re also facing new and unfamiliar situations on a regular basis. They don’t know the rules or the expectations, and that can leave them feeling just as nervous – and in need of comfort – and you would on your first day of work. They may not want to eat at all, or they may only reach for those foods that feel familiar and safe.

On top of that, the school environment can be especially overwhelming, and just like adults feel “brain dead” after an all-day training session, children can shut down when their senses are overloaded. “I see that a lot in kids in school who are in noisy rooms when they eat,” says occupational therapist Sahana Baker-Malone. “It can be really disturbing, challenging, and frustrating. There are a lot of smells, and you can get confused signals from your brain about what you smell and what you're eating – especially in over-stimulating environments.” If your child is a selective eater, they may only eat specific foods because they’re overwhelmed.

What can I do if my kid won’t eat at school?

It can be worrisome when you send your kid to school with a full lunch box and they come home without having eaten a bite. Before you panic, take a breath; your kid isn’t “starving” and picky eating is a normal and healthy part of development that most kids will outgrow by about age eight. That full lunch box might mean your kid is overloaded by stimuli at school, and while you can’t control their lunchroom eating experience, you can plan ahead to give your kid is plenty of eating opportunities during the day.

One option is to look at meals as a Division of Responsibility, or DOR, as pediatric registered dietician Gretchen Flanagan explains. “Parents need to recognize their job is to provide eating opportunities every three to four hours. It’s their child’s responsibility to eat the amount they need at that time. If we are waiting for our children to tell us when they’re hungry and what they want to eat, it is beyond their capabilities as a small person to fully take responsibility of that task; that is definitely a parenting task.”

To take charge of this task, you can offer your child balanced “mini-meals” both before and after school, allowing them to eat as much or as little as they want. Then, they’ll have another eating opportunity at school during lunch or snack time. If they choose not to eat, that’s okay. They’ve made a decision that feels right for their body, and they’ll have another chance to eat at the next mini-meal when they get home. As Gretchen explains, “We can trust that it will all work out, because we’re going to offer another mini-meal in three hours.”

It is okay to pack whatever my kid likes for lunch?

Another concept that can help you handle your picky eater is to adjust your own ideas about food. Adults often think of foods as “good,” “bad,” “healthy,” or “unhealthy,” but as Gretchen stresses, “Food is fuel. Some fuel might be better suited to the moment than others, but it’s all part of a healthy balance. Every food provides some nutritional benefit – there are simply some foods that should show up more frequently than others.” That means a cookie and a salad each offers nutrition (though they offer a different balance), so it’s okay to pack some of the foods you know your child will eat when they head to school – even if every option isn’t 100% healthy.

If your child only eats “the Beige Diet,” rest assured that it’s pretty common among school age kids. As psychologist Dr. Shiri Sadeh-Sharvit shares, “There are stages when kids have this preference for foods that are high in carbs and fats. This is an age-appropriate phase that starts around age five and ends around age 10. Some kids will prefer high-fat, high-calorie, high-carb foods, and that is developmentally appropriate. Evolutionary speaking, their developing brains need fatty acids and they need carbs in order to function.”

Liking specific colors or disliking certain textures is all within the normal range of picky eating. Most kids will outgrow these phases, so in most cases, you don’t need to fight or worry. If you’re concerned about your child’s growth or development, you can talk with your child’s pediatrician. Mostly likely, they’ll be able to reassure you, but they’ll also be able to identify any picky eating habits that may be signs of something more serious.

App Tip

Providing food for a picky eater can be tough enough at home; once that kid heads off to school, it can be downright nerve-wracking. If you’re feeling helpless, worried, or frustrated, you’re not alone! Picky eating is common, and it’s a normal and healthy part of your child’s development. Remember, your kid isn’t going to starve if they don’t eat lunch at school. To help you both get through it:

  • Trust that your child will eat when they need to eat.

  • Give them plenty of chances by providing healthy mini-meals before and after school.

  • Offer a few familiar foods you know they love.

These strategies may help you relax a little – and can help you teach your child to look at food as nourishment for their body that allows it to grow and become stronger. They’ll also learn that all food can be enjoyed without guilt within reason, laying the foundation for lifelong healthy relationship with food once this picky eating phase has finally passed.

Want to learn more about “Picky Eating, Healthy Eating?”  Start your path to a solid parenting foundation in just 10 minutes a day. Check out the HelloJoey app.

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