Expert post: Help! My child hates school dinners!
Are school dinners the best option for children? Or can they turn fussy eaters off vegetables for life? Our education expert Janet Murray lifts the lid on school meals.
School dinners have come a long way since the days of soggy semolina and lumpy custard. But do your children love or loathe school dinners? Here are some of your questions answered.
Q: My six-year-old daughter is quite a fussy eater. She has school dinners at the moment, but she’s always really hungry when she gets home, so I’m not sure she’s eating much at lunchtime. Should I switch to packed lunches?
Not necessarily. Other children can have powerful influence on children’s eating habits, so it’s not uncommon for children who won’t touch vegetables at home to tuck into boiled cabbage and carrots at school without a word of complaint, just because their friends are doing it!
This is backed up by new research from the School Food Trust, which found that four out of five children in England who ate school lunches had tried food at school that they had not tried at home.
Obviously you need to find out whether your daughter is eating her lunch at school. There can be a variety of reasons, apart from fussiness, why children don’t enjoy school dinners. It could be that the dining hall is too crowded, noisy or uncomfortable. Perhaps the food is being served too hot or too cold. Or it could be something as seemingly trivial as not being able to sit with her friends.
Ask your daughter’s teacher or a lunchtime supervisor to keep an eye out for a few days and make your decision from there.
Q: My son goes to a large primary school where lunches are served in two sittings. As a Year 6 student, he goes in second and says there is often very little left to choose from. He often has to rush his meal, so he is not late back to class. I appreciate it is difficult for the school to feed hundreds of children in an hour, but how can I raise the issue without sounding petty?
You aren’t being petty at all! To keep up their concentration levels in the afternoon, it is really important for children to have a good lunch and have time to digest their food. It may be that the school lunches are provided by a private catering firm, but your first port of call should still be the head teacher, who will be responsible for ‘buying in’ catering services for the school. Are any other parents concerned about this issue? If so, you could write a joint letter or request a group meeting with the head teacher. If a number of parents express their concern, the head teacher is more likely to review the existing lunchtime arrangements.
Q: My eight-year-old daughter is a picky eater and is made to stay in the dining hall at lunchtime until she has cleared her plate, which she finds extremely stressful. What should I do?
While most parents would agree it is important to encourage children to eat a good amount at mealtimes, insisting on a clean plate can make children anxious around food which is not going to help her fussiness and can lead to long-term problems.
Talk to your child’s teacher about how this is affecting your daughter. Instead of clearing her plate, perhaps she could work to daily or weekly targets, such as trying one new food a week or just a forkful or two of foods she says she doesn’t like.
If the ‘no waste’ approach to school dinners is part of the school culture, you may need to speak to the head teacher. While it may have been acceptable to make children clear their plates 50 years ago, knowledge about health and nutrition has moved on!
If children are constantly made to eat everything on their plate, they can lose the ability to recognise when they are hungry and when they are full, which is important in maintaining a healthy weight later in life.
Deb Carrots has written about getting children to try new foods.
Getting children involved with cooking at home, can be a great way to encourage them to be more adventurous and try new foods, without putting them under pressure.
The Directgov site has information for parents about school lunches
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