Summertime Prep for the School Cafeteria



Summer!  Ten luxurious weeks of spitting watermelon seeds, munching on veggies straight from the garden and crafting the perfect s’more over the campfire.  As an SLP who focuses on feeding challenges in children, summer food skills are foremost in my mind this time of year.  However, once a week in the summer, my little clients and their families will focus on preparing to eat in the school cafeteria.  Before you know it, it will be mid-August and those little munch bugs will joining their friends at elementary school, or perhaps all-day kindergarten. For kids who are about to go to their very first day of school, it also means their very first day in a school cafeteria, and that can be quite overwhelming, especially for a child in feeding therapy.

Many kids are truly scared of the school cafeteria. In fact, one little boy I worked  with called it “the Café-FEARia.” Imagine a 5-yea- old, on his first day of school, as he tries to negotiate a sea of kids filing into the school lunchroom, attempting to locate his lunch box among 20 others piled into a giant bin and ultimately squeeze into a tiny place to sit at the assigned table. Now, unlatch that brand spankin’ new lunchbox (how does that latch work, anyway?) and peer inside … the clock is ticking … your little munch bug now typically has 20 minutes left to eat, clean up and get back in line with his class; not the most relaxing lunch for any kid.


Introduce Weekly Lunchbox Dinners

Feeding therapy is more than just learning the mechanics of biting, chewing and swallowing.  Generalizing skills to multiple environments is essential.  For kids transitioning to school lunch, introduce once a week “lunch box dinners” where the entire family pretends to eat in the school cafeteria.  At the entrance to the kitchen or dining area, one parent stashes a large bin, just like the kids will find at school.  Each member of the family has their own distinct lunchbox thrown into the bin, along with a few “old” random empty lunchboxes so kids can practice digging down to the bottom to find their own.


Once everyone is seated at the table, the child can practice the fine motor skills of unzipping zippers, unfastening Velcro® flaps and opening up containers.  Choose a lunchbox that is easy to open and holds all the food in one container.  It saves precious time!  My favorites are Easy Lunchboxes® and Yumbox® , both simple to open and perfect for cutting the food into bite sized pieces.  I call it “grab and gab” food.  Speaking of “gab,” many of my feeding clients also are working on pragmatic skills with their peers, especially when they are in unfamiliar situations.  As an SLP, I teach the parents to practice this little script: “I’ve got ____ in my lunch!”  In all my years of sitting in school lunchrooms and listening to young kids, it’s ALWAYS the first thing they say to each other.  It’s their traditional conversation starter, usually accompanied by them proudly holding up the celebrity food – the star of the lunchbox. I can attest that I hear just as many kids enthusiastically say “I have fruit today!” as “I have (fill in any junk food here) today!”  Try for  the veggies … it’s really okay … it’s just as cool to have vegetables cut up into stars or other fun shapes so they can announce, “I have CUCUMBER STARS today!”  Better yet, get the kids involved packing the lunches and creating fun shapes so they can exclaim “I made carrot triangles for lunch!”  FunBites® are child safe tools for doing just that.  They may not eat them that day, but they will be comfortable with carrots in their lunchbox, and that’s the first step to trying a new food in a new environment.


Once the meal is over, everyone latches their lunchbox and puts it back in the bin, just like at school.  The final piece of advice I offer to families is this: The most important word in the phrase family dinner is “family.”  Enjoy this time!  Happy Summer everyone!

Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP treats children birth to teens who have difficulty eating.  She is the author of Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids and the producer of the kids’ CD Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food!  Melanie’s two-day course on pediatric feeding is approved by ASHA and includes both her book and CD.  She can be reached at


  1. says

    Thank you for sharing my love for kids and food! Hope my fellow SLPs will follow me on Facebook (My Munch Bug) and Twitter too! (MelaniePotock@MyMunchBug)

  2. says

    LOVE this idea! When I worked in the schools, lunchtime was my biggest fear for my kiddos when transitioning them from early childhood to kindergarten. There are very few children that will actually be granted any type of adult assistance during lunchtime as it is also lunchtime for the student’s teachers and assistance. So the question always is, who can “cover lunch”? Well I LOVE this idea of getting the family involve and also showing them the need for working on these skills. So clever for working feeding AND pragmatics! And really it’s just a great social and self help skill that even our typically developing kiddos could practice before kindergarten. Love the post…sharing!!!

    • says

      Hi Enrica,
      What an interesting perspective on my post! As a pediatric SLP specializing in helping kids learn to eat new foods, I’m having trouble finding where in my article I help “parents train their children to eat as bad as they eat in schools”. My post is about helping kid adapt to the school cafeteria, which can quite an overwhelming environment. I’d also like to point out that I encourage healthy eating in this post. I welcome your perspective and thank you for taking the time to read my article.

    • Sara WIlkerson says

      I think there might be a misunderstanding. I don’t think the point was to give kids a freebie junk food dinner at all. It’s about taking a step in recreating a potentially intimidating environment that will be unavoidable in their school day and making it safe and fun.
      I LOVE the idea of cucumber stars, by the way. Have you ever heard of bento boxes? They’re typically a single container filled with fun yummies in all sorts of shapes and often made into a picture or work of art!

      • says

        Hi Sara,
        I’m always amazed at the creative bento boxes that I see kids enjoy – so beautiful! While we may not have time to get that creative for every lunch, the point is to get all kids involved (especially those with feeding difficulties) in the process of preparing food for the family. Keep it fun, focus on family and take it one step at a time. Thank you for your comments Sara!