Supporting Your Child’s Eating as they go Back to School
Strange time of year to be writing a ‘Back to School’ post - I know! But all over the world families are making the transition back to school as vaccines are being rolled out. Going back to school is challenging at the best of times, let alone in a pandemic! Questions I am getting from clients include - what should I put in their lunch box? Do I need to change my mealtime routine? My child doesn’t eat much at school - what should I do?
Here are my 8 top tips for supporting your child with their eating as they head back to school:
- Prepare your child in advance - if you can! Lots of children who struggle with eating have a cautious temperament and like their routine. Preparing them in advance for the change can be a huge help. You may not be able to predict when your school will re-open or how long it will stay open for. Do what you can, and give your child as much notice as possible. A count-down calendar on the wall, or picture books about going back to school can be useful tools.
- Transitions can be stressful and this may show up in your child’s eating. Going back to school can be stressful for lots of kids. Especially during a pandemic, children may pick up on the stress levels of teachers and parents. This stress may show up in their eating. If you have been working on supporting your child’s eating and feel like you are making progress, expect a ‘blip’ in progress that could last several days or weeks as your child gets used to the new routine.
- Lower expectations just a little - School days are exhausting for kids! As they get used to being back at school they may be really tired in the evenings, and not very interested in eating at all! Think how stressed and anxious many of us adults feel when starting a new job - it is just the same for kids. Keep your usual mealtime structure and rules, but lower your expectations of their behaviour for a little while. If your child is really struggling to eat by dinner time, you can serve easier, more palatable foods as part of dinner. Serve more substantial, filling foods earlier in the day as part of breakfast or an afternoon snack when they may be in better form to eat them.
- Make sure your child has access to accepted foods at school. If your child brings a packed lunch to school, make sure you pack accepted foods. For children with a very limited range of accepted foods, this sometimes requires getting an exemption from the schools ‘healthy food policy’. Remember - if your child only eats a handful of foods, those foods are nourishing and healthy for your child. If your school provides a hot lunch, make sure it includes some foods that your child is able to eat. If the school catering staff are not able to accommodate your child’s needs, consider sending a packed lunch box instead.
- Continue to Follow the Satter Division of Responsibility - with the help of the school staff.
- Parents, you are responsible for what food is available by packing the lunch box, or ensuring that the school provided dinner includes foods that your child can eat.
- Teachers are responsible for when and where food is available - by making your child’s food available at a designated lunch time. It is also the teachers responsibility to provide an environment that supports your child’s eating. Some children may need a quiet space that is not quite as loud and over-stimulating as the class room or canteen.
- Children are responsible for how much and whether they eat the foods provided.
- Speak to your child’s teacher or school staff - Make sure they are not using any strategies that undermine what you are doing at home. If you do not pressure or use rewards for eating, it is unhelpful if teachers use these strategies at school. If you need to speak to your child’s teacher about your child’s eating, it is best to avoid having that conversation within your child’s ear shot.
- Do not ask your child what they ate, or inspect their lunch box. Immediately asking your child what they ate, inspecting their lunch box, or insisting that they finish their lunch in the car on the way home can feel like an awful lot of pressure for your child. It is likely that they were distracted, busy, and over-stimulated at school and eating may have been a difficult task for them to juggle with everything else going on. Remember - adults often skip or rush their lunch on busy work days too! Regardless of whether your child has or has not eaten their lunch, wait until the next routine meal or snack time and serve whatever foods you had planned. If your child eats very little at school, plan to serve filling accepted foods at breakfast, and in the evening. That way - your child is more likely to get what they need over the course of the day.
- Consider adjusting your meal and snack routine - you may need to rethink your meal and snack routine. Depending on your child’s age, they should have four or five eating opportunities per day, spaced approximately 3 hours apart (usually no less than 2 hours, and no more than 4 hours). Depending on when your child gets home from school, they may need one or two evening eating opportunities at home. This could be:
- One main evening meal
- An afterschool snack, followed by an evening meal 2.5 or 3 hours later
- A main meal when they get home, followed by a bedtime snack 2.5 or 3 hours later.
Useful References & Resources:
- Division of Responsibility: www.ellynsatterinstitute.org
- Cormack, J. (2017). Helping Children Develop a Positive Relationship with Food: A Practical Guide for Early Years Professionals. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.