In a post I wrote recently, I tackled what to do when your doctor is not taking your child's eating issues seriously, and you are told to "let them starve". It turned out to be one of my most popular articles, and clearly resonated with so many parents. In this post, I'm tackling another common problem faced by parents of picky eaters - what to do about school lunches.
Many children whose diet is very limited, are able to take a packed lunch to school or daycare. This works well because they can bring the foods they are comfortable eating and can get enough energy to make it through the day. Some schools, nurseries or daycare settings don't allow this though. In my experience, this can cause a significant amount of stress for both parents and children. Parents feel anxious that their child won't eat all day. Children dread lunchtime and often go without food until they are back at home.
I am often asked by parents to write to nursery managers, pre-school teachers and other professionals, explaining why a child needs to be allowed to bring in their own food. I have put together the key points for you into a letter template which you can download for free here. I'd also like to outline my answers to the common reasons given for not letting a child bring in their own foods:
They will eat once they see the other children eating
For children who are moderately picky, yes, maybe they will. For genuinely food-anxious children, however, no they won't. Like the "she won't starve" argument, she won't eat just because the other kids are eating, either. Peer pressure is powerful but fear of disliked or unfamiliar foods is more powerful still.
We can't make exceptions for one child
Yes you can. Being inclusive is all about making exceptions so that every child can access the resources available to them. It isn't about treating all children the same. This means that a child who uses a wheelchair gets to use a ramp because this allows them to access the building. A child who has special needs may be allowed to fidget with something in lessons so that they can manage to stay in the room and stay calm. A child who is a very limited eater needs to be able to eat something at lunch time so that they can access the curriculum and not be hungry and exhausted all day.
It will set a precedent
If it sets a precedent meaning that children who are extremely picky get to feel relaxed about meal times and eat something they are comfortable with, this is a good thing. In terms of the rest of the children, make sure you have a food policy that explains that exceptions are only made for children whose eating is very limited.
You are never obliged to discuss a particular child's needs with other parents (in fact it would breach confidentiality) so you don't have to explain or justify your decision if some parents complain that you have made an exception for someone else's child.
We can provide their safe foods as part of the options offered
This is not a response I have often heard, as most schools find this impractical. However, if a school has a cafeteria where children choose from several possible options and are committed to genuinely making sure one or two of your child's safe foods can be made available every day, this can work. My reservations are about how it's handled; is a child told 'here are your foods'? This will embed that message that they can't access what the other children are eating. Do they end up feeling different from their peers - more different than if they had brought a packed lunch where other pupil are less aware of what they are eating? Is it consistent? Children need to trust that there will always be something available that they can eat - this MUST be reliably followed through on, Every. Single. Day.
It's not our policy to let children bring in their own food
'Can I see you policy?' Is the first response to this. Look at the wording (does it specifically say children can't bring in their own food ?) and challenge it if necessary. In some cases, there may not even be a written policy which covers this, although having a food policy is good practice.
If they do indeed have a policy which states that children can't bring in their own food, ask them to consider changing it. With some exceptions, schools and nurseries have the power to amend their policies and they ought to review them on a regular basis. If you are not being heard, take your concerns about the food policy to a higher level. In the UK, this could be to the board of governors.
In my letter template, I explain exactly WHY it is so important for children who are very limited eaters, to be allowed to bring their own food with them to the setting they attend. I hope you find it useful. I have actually made it into a fillable pdf so if you like, you can simply personalise it and print it out or email it to your child's teacher. Even if you are not at the point of writing to the setting your child attends, you may well find my letter an interesting read in terms if understanding just how hard eating at school can be for some children.
Sometimes you have to step up and be your child's advocate. If you are not being listened to, shout a little louder.