Home Speech-Language Pathology The School Cafeteria: Hurry Up and EAT!

The School Cafeteria: Hurry Up and EAT!

by Melanie Potock MA
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Most parents tell me that their elementary school child has 20 to 25 minutes to enter the school cafeteria,  search for her lunchbox buried in a portable tub, find a place to sit, open all the containers, eat (oh, right, eat), then clean and pack up before the bell rings.  In an effort to ensure that their kids eat anything at all, well-meaning parents pack lunchboxes filled to the brim with typically, 7 to 8 different options!

Picture this: Your little first grader searches for spot in a sea of tables, newly found lunchbox in hand.  She squeezes in between her best friends, climbing up onto the metal bench, feet dangling, with her  little elbows resting on the much too high table top, just below her chin.  Most school cafeterias provide the same size seating for the entire school, whether the kids are 3 feet tall or towering 5th graders, about to move on to middle school.  Ever try to eat a meal on a narrow bench, your feet dangling and no back-rest?  It’s not easy.  By the time your child gets  the plastic bags opened, the juice box straw unwrapped and poked hard enough into the box that it squirts her in the face, all while holding up her other hand  to signal the teacher “Can you please open this lid?” well, another 5 minutes have passed by.  Meanwhile,  she’s excited to get out to recess, now just 15 minutes away.

As a feeding therapist, I visit lots of school cafeterias and have learned that parents and teachers have one priority: Getting kids to eat a nutritious lunch.  In contrast, kids have this priority: Talking to their friends.  How then, does a parent pack a lunch, especially for a picky eater or perhaps a child with special needs, that still allows their child some much needed “down time” to chat with friends yet fill their bellies quickly and nutritiously? Here are 3 strategies to do just that:

  1. Send one easy open container plus a drink.  I recommend EasyLunchboxes® BPA-free system, because the lid is easy for little fingers to pop off and instantly reveal 3 to 4 yummy choices.  Another favorite is the Yumbox®, where the single tray is divided into ½ cup portions designed for the key food groups: Fruit, Veggies, Grains, Protein and Dairy.  Both options are quick to open and not as overwhelming as a lunchbox filled to the brim with individual plastic bags, containers and/or drippy fruit cups with tricky foil lids
  2. Pack “GRAB and GAB” food.  Cut fresh fruit, veggies, sandwiches, cheese, etc. into small enough pieces that kids can grab a piece without gazing down and continue to gab with their friend across the table.  My favorite speedy gadget is FunBites® which instantly creates grab and gab bites, yet has no sharp edges.  It’s a fun way to get  kids in the kitchen making their own lunch the night before – once again,  get them involved and they are more likely to eat it later.  For some kids, cutting a sandwich into a larger, fun shape like a dinosaur, keeps the conversation and the eating on the same track.  But, for those kids who tend to just eat a sandwich and skip the other items, try cutting the sandwich into small pieces with a  FunBite® so the child alternates “grabbing”  a variety of foods, much like a mini-smorgasbord.  Remember, you don’t need to send a whole sandwich when sending half leaves room in little bellies for other key food groups.
  3. Include a power- packed smoothie  that you made the night before.  Freeze it directly in the cup (with a lid, of course) and be sure to include a wide straw.  By the time your child opens her lunch, the smoothie will be the perfect consistency, plus it helped to keep the lunch cold.  For elementary school age kids, refillable pouches are another option for healthy smoothie or puree blends.  One of my favorites is the adorable 4.5 oz. Squooshi™, which is freezer and dishwasher safe and free of all the “bad-for-yous” like BPA, lead and phthalate.  Recipes for kids of all ages can be found on the Squooshi website.  Another terrific option is to fill a Sili Squeeze with Eeeze™ food pouch and freeze it with the cap on. Please note that the manufacturer does not recommend storing the Sili Squeeze™ in the freezer for an extended periods of time, but states on their website that “Sili Squeeze™ is the perfect lunch box addition to keep your child’s lunch cool and will be perfectly defrosted for lunch time!”

One elementary school that I visited was graciously flexible to help one little girl eat better.  They provided a smaller table that fit her so that her feet could be on the floor (or try a box underneath little feet as a footrest). The table should be at sternum-height so your child can see her food and rest her arms for stability.  Smaller tables also reduce cafeteria noise and foster social skills thanks to smaller groups of kids sitting together.

Here’s a picture of that sweet little girl.  Note the easy “grab and gab” food in one (and only one) container.  See the rest of the food on the table?  That belongs to the two other kids seated across from her.

Tell me about your kids’ cafeterias – the good, the bad and the delicious!  What can we do to help kids in school get more time and more options for a healthy lunch?

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 award-winning kids’ CD Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food!  Melanie’s two-day course on pediatric feeding is  offered for ASHA CEUs and includes both her book and CD for each attendee.  She can be reached at Melanie@mymunchbug.com.

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Kristina Minem August 23, 2013 - 2:15 am

Really good ideas- but I have to roll my eyes at the whole “our poor children are victims” schpeel you are giving. I watched my 5 year old eat lunch today at school. She’s an extremely picky eater. She miraculously managed to survive through her second day of uniform-issued/standard sized bench seating in a busy cafeteria. She was so excited to be there I don’t think the fact that her feet didn’t touch the floor had any serious, lingering effects on her eating or will cause eating disorders in the future. She opened her containers of food without struggling for several minutes. 5 years of prior practice opening containers have made this possible. She spent more time chatting with friends than eating, but she ate on the way home as well as ate during their multiple snack breaks in the classroom. Something tells me she’s going to be ok. Longer lunches? That WOULD be nice, absolutely. Easier prepping and packing of lunch options? Sure, that’s great too. Tell parents everywhere! Just don’t give parents one more reason to start harassing budget-strapped schools for different sized lunch benches with ergo-friendly back support and intimate, small group settings.

Melanie Potock August 23, 2013 - 9:54 am

Hi Kristina,
Thank you for your input. What I am trying to communicate is that kids come in all sizes and abilities. Every child has a unique sensory system and personality. In no way was I trying to communicate “our poor child are victims” or encourage parents “to start harassing budget-strapped schools to different sized lunch benches with ergo-friendly back support and intimate, group settings.” What I do encourage is looking at kids as individuals, and if a child is having trouble getting nourishment in a timely fashion, consider manageable strategies and options to support that child. I’ve been visiting school cafeterias to work with kids who are need this support for over 14 years now. I’m glad to hear that your 5 year old is doing great – many are! But, for many kids, it’s challenging and I am here to offer tips for the school and the parents. Thanks again for your comments – it’s a good discussion and I appreciate your input!
Yours in the interest of kids, food and joyful mealtimes,

Ludicrous Mama (@BitingMyHand) August 26, 2013 - 10:47 pm

My about-to-start-kindergartener doesn’t get snack breaks at school. And she’s normally a slow eater. So yes, she can eat the rest of her lunch after school (and then not be hungry at dinnertime, but be starving by bedtime.) But if she’s not “comfortable” – ie: table is too high, kids are too close at her sides, etc, it will distract her to the point of being unable to focus on eating.

It’s great that your child had the opportunity to practice opening her lunches for years. Mine has too. But I send EasyLunchboxes for the very reasons mentioned in the post. But your child isn’t all children, and certainly isn’t my child.

Enrica August 23, 2013 - 9:42 pm

Hi Melanie,
Your ideas are good for the purpose of making the children eat fast so they can fit in the American school system. I cannot possibly pack my child’s three courses meal the way you suggest. I was not raised on sandwiches and raw vegetables. I might have eaten that ten or fifteen times in my whole life! Italian parents feed their children a proper three course meal with fresh food which has just been finished cooking. For example, spaghetti with fresh ragu’ or risotto with asparagus followed by chicken cacciatora (or trout or salmon) cooked with grilled vegetables, followed by fruit. This is what I call *PROPER LUNCH*, not boxes with finger food bought at the grocery store. This is fast-food! I do not want my child to eat like this. I am really upset about the fact that an entire school system forces all children to never learn to eat and to grow weak and to always be sick. Twenty minutes are NOT enough to eat a nutritious three courses meal, which is what children should be given. How come nobody in America is questioning the fast-food culture? Will I be the only crazy parent visiting my child’s school to loudly voice my concerns about the way the treat children at lunchtime? If they ask the parents to eat in school, the teachers should take the responsibility of educating the children about food and about taste. I have done this job every day since my child was six month old and I would be very upset if all this work was destroyed by the American school system. What are your thoughts on this?
Thanks for your time.
Best Regards, Enrica

Ludicrous Mama (@BitingMyHand) August 26, 2013 - 10:48 pm

In our Kindergarten class, there is a mom bringing a fresh hot lunch every day for her son, and she got the requisite fingerprinting and background check to sit with him and enjoy lunchtime together. All 20-minutes of it!

Melanie Potock August 25, 2013 - 10:49 am

Well hello again Enrica! I remember your comments from my previous article on prepping kids for the school cafeteria: https://blog.asha.org/2013/06/13/summertime-prep-for-the-school-cafeteria/. I am happy to hear that your child is such a joyful eater and that your are able to send three course meals, freshly cooked to school. They sound delicious and you sound like a wonderful cook! Sounds like you feel very strongly about the American school system. To answer your question, my thoughts on this are to offer support to an already overtaxed system, where teachers have incredible responsibilities to address the needs of a variety of children and help where you can. I feel very fortunate that the school noted in this article was open to my professional advice and supported the needs of the child mentioned, and made manageable accommodations for her. While clearly you have expressed that your opinion on a “proper lunch” is not what I have described in this article, I humbly accept the term “fast food” as that is my point! I have to work with what I have – 20 to 25 minutes to help a child eat a nutritious lunch and have time to relax with friends. Because I work closely with Registered Dietitians, I feel comfortable that the “fast food” I am proposing is nutritious and provides fuel for learning for the rest of the day.

Ludicrous Mama (@BitingMyHand) August 26, 2013 - 10:50 pm

I sat through a summer of day-camps and have seen numerous Kindergarten-through-Second-Grade children too shy to ask for help in opening their containers, or have to wait up to 10 of their precious 20 minutes to get their drink pouch punched, or foil packet of chips or applesauce opened. Some couldn’t even manage Ziplocs. I sat there at these summer camps and watched my 3-year-old with her intentionally easy-open water bottle, snack boxes, and EaslyLunchboxes (with any pre-packaged foods already opened and portioned out into smaller treat-sized portions!) finished with her snack or lunch before some kids had even been helped by the teachers yet! And she was the ONLY child there who didn’t need help with at least one of the items sent. (The girl with the zipper-lunchbag and those fold-to-close thin baggies only needed help with her drink.)

Melanie Potock August 27, 2013 - 10:28 am

Hi! Thank you – such a clear picture you painted! Part of my job is to help kids learn the fine motor skills of opening various containers (and I hug my OT friends for helping me learn about that!) but for many little munch bugs (or for those with special needs), it’s just too much to try to do in the course of the short lunch. Over time, they might get better and quicker, but for now, I too love an easy-open solution. I know I get frustrated just when I can’t get a coffee filter out of the darn box in the morning, when all I want is a cup of coffee! LOL!

Ludicrous Mama (@BitingMyHand) August 28, 2013 - 1:40 am

No kidding! My sister was too cheap to buy EasyLunchboxes when I offered to buy together for free shipping, and got Ziploc ones instead. The first time I packed in them for her girls (I’d only brought boxes for my daughter and I,) I couldn’t get the darn things open. *I* couldn’t! I was in tears, practically ready to bang them against the counter, shaking up the cute little heart-themed lunches I’d packed, to try and BREAK them open! I hate them.

She bought EasyLunchboxes a month later. 😉

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