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5 Reasons Your Pupils Might Be Discarding Lunch (and How to Fix It)

There are few things as frustrating, for parents and lunch monitors alike, as a child who refuses to eat their school dinner. It's frustrating for many reasons, not least of which is our adult inability to agree. As grown ups, we might very well be eating our peas, but it doesn't necessarily mean we want to. We just know we should. Try telling that to a five year old who finds peas better for throwing than munching.

It can be difficult to balance sensitivity to a child's preferences with the need for them to eat a balanced lunch containing protein, dairy (or a substitute), wholegrain carbs and fruits and/or vegetables. Keep in mind, young people can be fickle. A refusal to eat lunch is a mystery with many potential answers. It might be an aversion to carrots but it could also be an awkward food packet, a noisy dinner hall or some other distraction.

Often, 'I don't want it' is the best way a child knows how to express themselves. So, it's worth training lunch monitors and assistants to ask the right questions and dig a little deeper when they encounter picky eaters.

1. The Problem: "I'm not hungry anymore."

Children can seem to switch from 'I'm starving! to 'I'm not hungry!' in a heartbeat. As it's one of the simplest ways to reject food, it warrants further investigation to make sure children aren't ditching lunch to get to the playground faster. Ask lunch monitors to probe further if they know a child regularly struggles to finish their meals. Just as adults have a hundred different reasons for not cleaning their plate, a picky child may have a perfectly logical explanation.

How to Fix It:

Start by asking the obvious question 'Why aren't you hungry?' Ask with curiosity, not frustration - you don't want to chastise the pupil, just get to know their habits a little better. Are they feeling worried? Are they nervous about a test or an issue with a friend? If loss of appetite is due to emotional stress, make time to talk to the pupil in a quieter, more private environment.

Otherwise, take a look at what's inside the lunchbox. Are the serving sizes appropriate? Children often discard food because the portions are too large. Or, they may be filling up on snacks earlier in the day. If volume of food is the issue, ask the pupil to talk to their parent about preparing smaller portions. Being able to share opinions about food and describe preferences is a sign of personal development.

If a pupil cannot ask for changes at home, their teacher could try cutting nutrient dense foods (vegetables, fruits, cheese) into smaller pieces during a morning lesson. Cubed or diced pieces encourage children to 'graze' rather than taking one bite and rejecting. The pupil might also be saving food to eat on the way home from school. If this is the case, their parent should include an extra (low fat, low sugar) snack in their lunchbox.

2. The Problem: "The dinner hall is too noisy for me."

Lunchtime is the only time of day when kids from all classes and year groups get a chance to hang out in the same space. There's bound to be lots of talking and excitable noise. It can be an extremely loud environment and some children may find it difficult to focus on eating amid the hullabaloo.

How to Fix It:

This can be a tricky problem to solve and may require collaboration with parents, lunch staff and teachers. Every school has limitations, so you'll need to get creative when proposing solutions. For instance, some schools tackle this issue by offering a smaller secondary lunchroom for noise sensitive pupils. Consider asking your headteacher if there's a spare classroom children can use as an alternative environment for eating.

If this isn't possible - due to lack of staff or other resources - recruit a small army of volunteers to make acoustic sound panels out of brightly coloured, repurposed blankets. If you hang these on the lunchroom walls, they should absorb some of the noise by preventing shouts and yells from reverberating around the space.

3. The Problem: "I want to eat lunch, but I can't open my food!"

It's surprisingly common for children to go without lunch because they cannot access their food. Packets and pots are fiddly! If a pupil is struggling and there isn't a lunch monitor around or they don't feel confident asking for help, awkwardly packaged food might just go uneaten. This is why lunch monitors are so much more than babysitters. When trained correctly, they can have a positive impact on pupils' unch habits just by being attentive and spotting problems quickly.

How to Fix It:

If the same child has the same problem, over and over, consider sending a note or memo to a parent advising them of the issue. While lunch monitors should be on hand to provide help, being able to eat lunch independently is a key skill that forms an important part of a child's fine motor development.

Ask parents to be aware of potential difficulties and test new boxes and containers out at home. Leak proof screw top containers and flasks are good choices as long as the lids aren't fastened too tight and/or the child is happy asking for help in the lunchroom.

4. The Problem: "I don't have enough time to eat everything."

It's similarly common for school lunchrooms to double up as gyms and activity spaces. There's a limited amount of space in schools and, as lunchtime lasts for just an hour or two each day, it makes sense for the room to be available for other pursuits. Unfortunately, this means set up, clean up and clear out procedures take time away from lunch sessions and, for some slow diners, make it hard to finish.

How to Fix It:

It probably won't be news to senior staff that some children eat slowly and feel unable to finish their lunch. Again, there are limited solutions. For most schools, there's simply no choice but to double up on the room's usage. However, what you can do is assign a table or two to the slower eaters. Make this table the very last one to be cleaned and cleared after lunch sessions.

Sitting at this table should always be a choice, never a punishment or cause for embarrassment. Make it available to pupils from all year groups and, where possible, don't rush children into leaving until it's absolutely necessary. Contrary to popular belief, slower eating isn't always a negative habit. It can indicate a healthy and balanced enjoyment of food.

5. The Problem: "My packed lunch looks yucky!"

You can tell their parents have lovingly packed a lunchbox full of fresh and nutritious foods - what a relief! Unfortunately, after three hours sat in a plastic container in a heated classroom, it doesn't look so pristine anymore. Even the prettiest lunches are likely to look shabby after being jostled in a school bag, turned upside down and flipped around and around. For some discerning pupils, it's hard to see past limp bread and sweaty lettuce even if you know it won't taste as sorry as it looks. 

How to Fix It:

Ask picky pupils how their foods change between packing and eating - how do they look in the morning and how is this different come lunchtime? Maybe their yoghurt is curdling outside of the fridge. Perhaps their sandwiches are coming apart or the bread feels soggy. Is their string cheese sweaty in its wrapper? Keep the conversation positive but try to gather useful information to pass on to parents. Most will be delighted at any strategy that cuts food waste and encourages their child to eat more at lunchtime.

For instance, they could place ice packs in their child's lunchbox or even freeze drinks to ensure they're still cool come lunch. If it's the appearance that's off putting, there are lots of tricks parents can use to keep food looking fresh. Rolls stay crustier than sliced bread. Dabbing wet vegetables like tomatoes and lettuce with a kitchen towel before using in sandwiches reduces sogginess. If possible, pack fruits in their own container and stuff with kitchen towels to prevent bruising.

For more tips on helping your pupils love lunchtimes, click here to read our blog on making school meals mindful. Or get practical advice on teaching wholegrain nutrition to KS1 and KS2 classes.