by local writer and blogger Grace Willis from Happy Little Eaters
For those of you with children starting nursery or reception this term, you may be feeling anxious about whether to choose school meals or stick with packed lunches deciding between the different pros and cons to both for your child. I’d like to share with you my experience of school meals and why they have helped my kids who are now in year 3, to be more adventurous with their food.
Hopefully some of the below points may help parents who’ve chosen to go down this route too.
It is tempting (and understandable) to take interest into what your child has eaten at school, but it can add pressure if your questions are not simply of the ‘innocently-interested’ kind – and more heavily focused on how much they ate and what they did or didn’t eat. It used to visibly cause my son to look a little harassed when I asked him in the early days! Any discussion of your child’s eating habits, particularly if this is due to concern or anxiety, is often be best kept away from their ears. If your teacher is able to, ask them if they can write a quick note of what they’ve eaten in the day to allow you to adjust their tea accordingly.
‘It won’t always be your favourite meal’
When my kids used to come home and tell me they’d had something ‘yukky’, I used to (and still do) ignore the negative language and whip out this little phrase to get them to understand that we simply can’t cook their favourite food all the time! Sometimes their meal may be a bit ‘meh’, but that’s ok. Suggest to cook their favourite meal one teatime if it helps change the mood and move the conversation on.If we delve deeper into this, I think this approach to mealtimes sets up kids to be more flexible, to accept the times when their usual meal is not available e.g. in a restaurant or if they are at a friend’s for tea. Suggest they explore the food the next time they are faced with something a bit different (if they are feeling up to it of course!), for example what colour or texture is it, does it have a strong smell, what does it feel like? Get them to share with you at the end of the day, like a special reporter!
Food intake reassurance
If your child is generally cautious with their food (my son certainly was when he started school), they may not get into cooked lunches straight away and eat less than they usually would. It is worth reminding ourselves that school meals make up 5 out of 21 meals per week (very little!) ,so they still have scope to achieve a good intake at breakfast and tea. If lunch is small or skipped, then children are often very good at self-regulating their intake (up or down) across the other meals within their week. Viewing their food intake over a day or week rather than honing in on one specific meal cann really take the pressure off.
Feeding approach in schools
There have been a few occasions over the last 3 years where my children have come home upset as they have had expectations by the school staff placed on them to finish their whole meal before they could ‘scrape’ (put any leftovers in the bin) even though they already considered themselves to have eaten enough. This is something I am trying to change in my kids’ school and highlight the benefits of ‘responsive feeding’ – essentially, letting the children be in charge of ‘how much’ and ‘what’ they want to eat. Times have changed and robust research supports the benefits of letting our kids be in charge of how much and what they eat from a provided meal. Given the worrying stories on weighing children at school in future, I feel this approach to feeding would be more successful and supportive compared to the challenges school weighing protocols could cause.
If, after reading all of this, you feel school meals are a step too far at the moment, it is worth considering that your child might not actually be quite ready if:
Your child is sensitive to new smells and sounds and eating in a group will be more of a hindrance than a help.
Your child’s diet is extremely limited (10 foods or under) and simply won’t be a case of ‘they’ll get used to the food at some point’.
You feel the stress of the last 6 months has taken a toll and you want one area of your child’s day to be predictable.
Are you doing school meals or packed lunch this term? What are your thoughts? Get in touch with Happy Little Eaters Facebook page to comment or to find out more. @happylittleeatersuk
Huge thanks to Specialist Paediatric dietitian Lucy Upton (thechildrensdietitian.co.uk) for checking all the necessary info!