Your child brings ANOTHER lunchbox home half (or less) eaten and you start to feel the emotions rising inside of you…
Why didn’t they eat it?
Did they not like it?
Are they not hungry?
Are they sick?
Why? Why? WHY??
You put thought, effort, and time into making that lunch. It was filled with love and nutrition…(or at least nutrition!) What is going on?
Let me shed some light on this question that ALL parents have encountered. Here’s what I have learned as a mom and a nutritionist about lunch boxes that come home untouched, half-eaten, or with much of the food only picked at. Plus, I will tell you what you can do to fix it!
Don’t Let Kids Throw Food Away
First of all, the fact that uneaten lunchtime food is coming home is actually a good thing. It’s a great form of communication between you and your child, or at least it can be!
When you can see exactly how much and exactly what food is being eaten at school and what is not you can begin to understand more of the underlying reasons this is happening. Let’s get into why the food is not being eaten and what to do about it.
Why Are Lunches Coming Home Unfinished?
Lunchtime is short
“In many public schools across America, the school lunch hour has shrunk to just 15 minutes.” Source
By the time a child’s class has walked to the cafeteria, retrieved their lunches and sat down, they often have 15 minutes or less to eat.
What to do:
This one is tricky. Many schools face scheduling issues due to overcrowding and limited facilities, However, If this issue is a concern for you and your child, I urge you to talk with members of the school staff and parents organizations. Change won’t happen without talking about it.
In the meantime, try to pack smaller portions for lunchtime and larger snacks so that your child is getting roughly the same calories but more evenly spread out between snacks and lunch.
They had a snack only an hour ago
Due to overcrowding at schools and having to rotate so many children through a less than adequate sized cafeteria, many schools are adopting crazy schedules for lunch times.
By crazy, I mean that some schools are serving lunch really early, like at 10 am! I’ve even read about schools serving lunch at 9 am!
Or, imagine having “snack time” at 9:30 am and then lunch at 10:30 am. I’m guessing you can see why a child wouldn’t be eating much of their lunch.
What to do:
If any of these issues with the timing of school lunches is a concern for you and your child, I urge you to talk about it with members of the school staff and parents organizations. Change won’t happen without people voicing concerns.
In the meantime, try packing a smaller, less filling snack or try a few days with skipping snack altogether.
I often find that kids aren’t necessarily hungry for a snack, but because the snack item is a cherished food that the kid really wants they will eat it anyways. Of course, this means that at lunchtime they have no appetite. In this case, you can try skipping the snack or packing veggies and/or fruit instead. If packing a snack, steer clear of the more desirable packaged foods and opt for healthy alternatives.
Kids want to talk and hang out
With more and more expectations to achieve certain standardized test scores, teachers are feeling the pressure to cram more academics into the school day. This can mean less recess, fewer moments of free play, and fewer chances for kids to talk and converse amongst themselves.
So when do the kids get to hang out? Lunchtime! Kids need some social time but it’s really hard for them to eat and talk at the same time!
What to do:
Talk to your kids about how eating affects our moods (HANGRY is a real thing!) We had weeks and weeks where my 7-year-old would come home with a lunch fairly untouched. We went through the list of possible issues and it came down to the fact that he just wanted to chat more with his friends and get to recess to play. I get that, but he was so HANGRY that this just wasn’t something we could let continue.
We talked with him daily about the importance of fueling his body and how his “hangry” mood was coming from not eating well. It took a few weeks but he totally got it. He made the connection between how he ate and how he felt. Now he knows to fuel his body regularly throughout the day. We say “fuel at school to play all day” to help him remember.
They couldn’t get to the food!
Make sure you send your child’s food in a container they can easily open! Too often I hear about and see kids struggling to open their lunch boxes or containers and often the parents have no idea. If they can’t find someone to help them, children will usually just leave the food untouched.
What to do:
Test your child’s ability to open their lunch container before you send them off to school with it! Especially for young kids with small hands.
Buy a lunch box that is super easy to open. I really like the single container types with multiple compartments so that there is only one lid to take off – like this one that I love or these Bento boxes Katie has always used. Easy peasy!
They say they weren’t hungry
Kids have varying appetites just like adults do. Some days they will be famished and other days their hunger will wane. These waves often coincide with growth spurts, increased physical activity with sports or for no particular reason!
The answer “I wasn’t hungry” can mean a whole lot of different things. It’s really important to talk with your child about why they say they weren’t hungry.
What to do:
Are they distracted? Anxious? Worried about a test or what Suzie Q said about them at recess? Emotional conflict can affect a child’s appetite. Talking about these issues is critical for your child to overcome them.
Or perhaps there was too much food packed in lunch? Are they overwhelmed? Younger children, especially, can be easily overwhelmed by large amounts of food. Try cutting up large foods into bite-sizes. Also, try packing less and see how it goes.
And…maybe your child just wasn’t hungry! If that is the case, just let it be. After a few days or weeks, they will probably be right back to “normal”. If not, keep talking to them about it.
They feel like they have no choice
Do your kids get a say in what gets packed? More often than not, when kids get to have some input in what foods get served to them they are more often likely to eat it.
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What to do:
With your child, brainstorm a list of healthy food options to pack in lunches. Try to come up with multiple options for each category of fruits, vegetables, protein/fats, and whole grains. Post this list in the kitchen or pantry (somewhere visible) and refer to it when packing lunches. Even older children can use it to pack their own balanced lunches!
With a list of known favorites and “things my kid will eat” you are almost guaranteed that at least most of the lunch will contain chosen foods.
No matter what the reason, you can always do this…
Offer a 2nd chance at lunch
2nd chance at lunch is just that- another chance to sit down and finish their lunch. The best part about 2nd chance at lunch is that you can offer your child the leftover lunch after school when most kids are really hungry.
Save time and food
Now you don’t need to take the time to make a snack after school, it’s already right in front of them! (I love when life is this easy.) Serving 2nd chance at lunch can also reduce food waste.
Is it safe?
Many foods are perfectly fine to eat after school. Veggies, fruit, crackers, baked goods, nuts, seeds, or anything else that doesn’t require refrigeration.
It gets a little bit trickier with hot and cold foods. Most foods sent with a well-insulated lunchbox and an ice pack or two will be fine but “when in doubt, throw it out”. The insulated hot thermoses tend to lose their “hot” temperatures (140F or higher) after about 5-6 hours so I usually toss any leftovers in those. With uncured meats or dairy (cheese is usually ok), I tend to err on the side of caution and toss them out. However, in our house, I really stress the importance of eating the protein portion of the lunch for fueling bodies and brains, so these foods rarely come home.
More ideas for healthy lunchbox packing
Now you know how to decipher the meaning of uneaten food coming home in your child’s lunchbox. Once you understand the why, you can feel empowered to help your child eat a more well balanced, nutritious lunch at school.
For more great ideas on what to pack, how to pack it, alternatives for allergy-friendly lunch boxes, and more you definitely need to read this all-encompassing article with over 70 real food lunch ideas!!
The Healthy Lunch Box: Sandwich-free Secrets to Packing a Real Food Lunch is loaded with strategies to streamline your packing process, stock your pantry with emergency backups for your backups, and send healthy, delicious food in the lunch box, no matter how old your eater is. Read more and start packing healthier, processed-free lunches today.