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This is Why your Kid isn’t Eating Lunch at School (and How to Fix it)

packed school lunches

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.

This is why your kid isn't eating lunch at school (and how to fix 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!

Healthy kids school lunch boxes packed

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.

kids eating lunch together at school

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.

RELATED: Low Blood Sugar in Kids

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!

RELATED: Health Benefits of Eating the Rainbow

bento box school lunch

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.

 

The holidays are a tough time for healthy eating, especially when kids really just want to bake fun foods!

(If they want to get into the kitchen at all!) 

Maybe…just this once…we should do something I don’t normally recommend. 

What if we give them what they want?

If you’re ready for your kids to gain baking independence without sacrificing all the healthy standards you value, join the Holiday Baking Challenge! Now on sale for just $19, you get professionally filmed videos of me and my kids teaching you to make baking favorites with healthier ingredients.

Holiday Baking Challenge

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.

list of items kids like in their school lunch

Find my FREE lunchbox packing cheat sheet here!

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 foodbefore and after lunchbox photos

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.

kids bento lunchboxes packed with shredded chicken, peas, cheese, tomatoes and carrots

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!!

Here’s how to decrease waste when disposable lunches are required and some plant based lunch ideas.

Be sure to check out this school lunch gallery of photos on Facebook for visual inspiration or this gallery of lunchbox photos over at Lunch with Leah.

The Healthy Lunch Box - packed with lunch ideas to go!
 

Packing healthy lunches when you’re short on time and out of bread is mind-boggling. Is there such a thing as a lunch without a sandwich? Is it possible for it to be healthy too?

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.

What has helped encourage your kids to eat their lunch?
Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

7 thoughts on “This is Why your Kid isn’t Eating Lunch at School (and How to Fix it)”

  1. This is a great reminder and I think I have been making lunches long enough that I have these points down. But I have encountered a new problem this year that I am really at a loss regarding how to handle. Food bullying. The other kids making fun of my daughters food. I send her foods she loves at home like spaghetti, basic chili, baked chicken nuggets, wraps etc. Lots of variety and it comes home barely touched. I ask and she is often upset because she is hungry and wants to eat but other kids comment and say it looks gross. She is so sensitive that she just closes it and doesn’t eat. All while the others are eating their Doritos, chocolate milk and Lunchables. They are so so mean literally calling her food poop or worms or who knows what. They won’t make fun of sandwiches, but who wants sandwiches every day. We have been working with her confidence, but I just don’t know how to navigate this. I have spoken with friends who pack healthy lunches at this school and they have said their kids have had similar experiences. Any suggestions?

    1. Oh no, Sarah, I am so disheartened to hear this. Bullying in any form is so destructive.

      First of all, I wouldn’t take this seriously (as you seem to be doing!) and protect your daughter’s emotional well being. If you haven’t already, bring awareness to the problem. Often teachers and other school staff have no idea what goes down in the lunchroom. You might even want to join her for lunch one day and get a feel for the environment (unless this would make things worse for her).

      Second, I think the real answer to any type of bullying is education on diversity and acceptance. This is obviously a longer process and not an immediate solution but it does work. Is it possible to spend some time with these children and talk about all the different foods that people eat? Differences in cultures, traditions, etc. How some foods nourish the body to grow, and how different foods help us stay strong and full of energy?

      There is a program at our school that is has a very similar reason as to why it was started (food allergy bullying) and it all started with a couple parents who wanted there to be more acceptance and education.

      Even if you don’t have the time or capacity to start something like that it would be very helpful to push school staff to acknowledge and address the problem. Bullying is bullying, no matter what the context. There may be other kids experiencing the same.

      There is also a really cute book called Yoko by Rosemary Wells about a cat that gets teased at school for bringing sushi- then becomes friends with a classmate who is brave enough to try it (and like it). It has a great message of being kind, tolerant, and respectful of others.

      Best wishes and I hope you find some helpful tips in addressing this.

      -Leah

      1. That is so frustrating! I would be very upset if my daughter was teased because of what she brought.

        I’m already getting a small taste of it, my daughter is in kindergarten and I try to pack a ton of fruits and veggies in her lunch. Just last night she was telling me how the boy who sits across from her doesn’t like vegetables, so his mom doesn’t pack any and she wishes she had his lunch.

        Very frustrating when the other kids at her table have junk food for lunch. It feels like an uphill battle sometimes, trying to get our kids to eat well.

    2. I know I’m late to the party but I wanted to ring in – my daughter has had the exact same experience. 🙁 I wish I had a perfect answer, but it’s been really tough. We’ve talked to her about mindset, about using humor with the torturers, about offering them a bite because they might like it. I think the best thing is to sit by like-minded friends with similar lunches and pray hard that one of them has a resilient personality that can stand up for real food! My prayer for you is that this is already getting better, but I know it can be a long, hard road. I’m grateful my dd didn’t go very many days w/o eating at all, but if yours still is, perhaps she needs teachers to allow her to eat elsewhere (or remove the bullies)?

      Hugs, Katie

  2. I love the idea of thinking of snacks and lunch together as total calories and using a before-lunch snack as a way to get some healthier calories.

  3. This is such a reassuring post! It made me feel saner knowing it’s not just my kids who come home with a barely touched lunch. The short amount of time they get for lunch is ridiculous. But I’m eager to check in with my kids this afternoon about what time they have snacks and lunches so I can adjust snacks and lunches accordingly. Thank you for the wonderful tips!

    1. Hi Katie!

      Thanks for the comment, you are definitely NOT alone in the constant struggle to get kids to eat a nutritious amount of food at school! #thestruggleisreal

      I’m so glad you found these tips helpful,

      -Leah

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