The school cafeteria is a fun place to be with friends and socialize over lunch, but it can also be very overwhelming. The smells, the noise, and the quick turn around and transitions in this environment can lead to a stressful experience for any child, especially those with additional sensory needs. While this environment may not be ideal, it is something that the majority of school-age children will be exposed to.
Packing your child’s lunch can be a good first step to surviving this environment. Using preferred and familiar foods and getting your child involved in preparing the meal can be a great way to get them more comfortable eating in a new place. If you have a picky eater who is struggling with eating lunch in the cafeteria, here are some ideas that will hopefully make cafeteria dining a better experience for you and your child.
1. Have kids pack their own lunch or have a say in what you help them pack
- Have “rules” or guidelines on what the child chooses to go in his/her lunch box
- Teach your child about nutrition and foods groups so you can use requirements such as “You can choose foods from each food group”
- Feel free to make silly requirements, such as choose certain colors, shapes, pre-packaged foods, etc.
2. Choose an easy-to-open container for quick access to foods
- Kids usually only have 20-30 minutes to eat and do not have 1:1 support in this situation, so choose a lunchbox and containers that are easy to open to avoid your child spending the first 10 minutes waiting for someone to help them open a container
- Consider an easy-to-open lunchbox with compartments for a variety of foods such as the Yumbox, (https://www.yumboxlunch.com) or something similar. This will help guide the number of foods you can expect your child to pack, as well as allow for easy access to foods
Practice choosing foods and eating lunch on a weekend or during a meal at home before sending the lunch to school. This way you can see if your child is having a hard time opening their lunch, what foods they avoid or consume first, and how long it takes
Set a timer for 20-30 minutes, or however long your child has to eat, and help them pace themselves
If your child is picky and you are trying to offer new foods at school, use this time to model ways they can interact with the new food and provide them the positive reinforcement and model they will not have in the lunchroom
4. Make a schedule
You can place a schedule or guidelines for your child in their lunchbox
This can be similar to a note you would pack in their lunch, or be written or placed on the inside of the lunchbox
The schedule could include things like: The order they can eat their foods (based on what you practiced), time guidelines to keep them on pace, reminders to talk to peers and socialize, reminders to ask for help, etc.
Written By: McKenzie Hoffman, M.A., CCC-SLP, Speech Language Pathologist
*For additional resources and articles on eating in the lunchroom, check out the link to Melanie Potuck’s My Much Bug blog: