School can be so tough. You’re asking your child to go to a completely new place for the majority of their day (or a portion of their day if you’re trying out part-time daycare or preschool) and it’s led by complete strangers. Now add picky eating on top of that… things can get tricky.
Depending on your school, snacks and/or lunch may be offered, or even provided for free. However, school snacks and lunches often are limited in options, which can be challenging for picky eaters with specific food preferences or aversions. If the school menu doesn't include foods that the picky eater likes, they may struggle to find something they want to eat. They may also struggle if they have extreme sensory sensitivities, such as a sensitivity to strong smells.
I also hear parents of picky eaters, children, and teens say that they feel self-conscious about their food preferences, especially if they are different from their peers. They may worry about being judged or teased for their food choices, which can make mealtimes stressful.
These factors, and more, can make school hard for picky eaters. It's important for parents and educators to be aware of these challenges and work together to find solutions that work for the individual child. Here are four additional tips that I recommended for parents with picky eaters at school:
Recommendations for Parents with Picky Eaters at School
1. Talk to your child’s school
Talk to your child’s teacher, school nurse, or cafeteria staff about your child's food preferences and any dietary restrictions (this includes allergies too!). They may be able to offer suggestions or accommodations that can make mealtimes more enjoyable for your child, or work with you to come up with a solution.
We provide our clients with a handout that parents can give to their child’s teacher to try to easily “explain” your child’s picky eating situation, such as Avoidant/Restrictive Intake Disorder, so school doesn’t need to be so challenging for them. This handout can help parents have an open conversation with their child’s teacher about food without feeling so stressed about it! Contact us and we can email it to you!
2. Send in additional snacks (or keep a few in your child’s backpack)
Food notoriously comes up in the classroom on random days and times. Maybe it’s Johnny’s birthday and his parents sent in treats without notice, or maybe Tina brought in treats for everyone just because. Sending in a few additional snacks ensures that your child has something they can eat too while everyone is enjoying their treat.
3. Pack a snack/meal, including a preferred food
Depending on your child’s needs, you may want to consider packing a snack or meal from home that includes foods that your child enjoys and is willing to eat. This can provide peace of mind for both you and your child, and ensure they are getting the nutrition they need during the school day. I recommend always packing 1-2 preferred foods so you know that your child will eat something during the day; those school days can be long and taxing! Also, don’t forget to pack foods in containers that your child can open!
4. Involve your child in meal planning
Involving your child in meal planning and preparation can help them feel more in control (and may encourage them to try new foods). They may be more likely to eat the foods they bring to school if it’s something they chose or helped plan and prepare vs. opening their lunchbox without knowing what to expect inside.
As a side note, I don’t want you to think that school will only be a negative experience for your picky eater. There are some benefits of school when it comes to picky eating. Here are a couple that I think are most important:
Talk to your healthcare provider or seek out support from a feeding specialist if you have concerns about your child’s eating. They can help develop a plan to meet your child’s individualized needs, including searching for underlying causes of your child’s feeding challenges and helping your child expand their food repertoire.
Kelly is a Speech Language Pathologist and a feeding specialist. If you have questions, please reach out to Kelly at Picky Eaters Online. She can answer your questions about feeding therapy, speech therapy, virtual therapy, and your child’s or teen’s specific needs. Contact Kelly and Picky Eaters Online at email@example.com or check out her website at https://pickyeatersonline.com/ to book a free consultation.
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