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Ask an Expert: My kid refuses to eat hot lunch at school.

EdNews Parent and “renegade lunch lady” Ann Cooper responds:

Q. My daughter’s elementary school has healthy lunch offerings, but she still refuses to eat at school. I think she’s a little intimidated because she’s always packed a lunch. How can I convince her to do it?

A. Marketing school lunch to students is one of the major challenges of sustainable school food change. The food industry spends $20 billion per year marketing non-nutrient foods to kids and this accounts for more than 40,000 television commercials a year – for junk food. We’ve now grown a generation of children who believe that chicken nuggets are a food group and spicy Cheetos breakfast fare. To turn this around is no small task.

Beyond marketing there are numerous other challenges to be overcome:

  • Lunch times that begin as early as 9:40 a.m.
  • Recess after lunch, which results in kids not eating so they can go play.
  • 10 to 15 minute lunch periods and long lines, which often mean that kids don’t get to sit with their friends and don’t have time to even eat.
  • The “fear” of the lunch lines and not knowing what to do.
  • The healthier offerings, which may be foreign to kids’ palettes.
  • Finally, there are picky eaters.

Marketing junk food to kids is a huge issue, but one that we’ll need legislation to resolve. As parents, turning the TV off more and not having a plethora of “junk food” in your home will help kids make better choices at school.

The first three items on the list are most often dictated either by the district or are school-based decisions and can and should be influenced by PTAs and PTOs, hence parents do have a voice in helping overcome these hurdles to eating school lunch.

The second three items can be impacted by parents, volunteers and school food staff. One of the best things that parents can do is have lunch at your student’s school, go through the lines with them and alleviate their fears around the lunch lines and the lunch ladies.

From a school’s perspective, there are two ways we work with students to get them to try new items. The first is tastings. We have our volunteers go into the cafeterias during lunch and hand out free tastes to all of the students in the cafeteria of items that will be on my menu later in the week. Kids have grown accustomed to food tastings in grocery stores and they love to taste new items, which they may not choose to purchase otherwise.

The second way we work with students is to hold “Iron Chef” competitions, where student or student/parent teams come up with replicable school food-focused recipes. We even have students as the judges. Additionally, we often have Student Advisory Councils help guide us to new or improved menu items or recipes.

When students participate in the decision-making process, they are much more likely to try new items.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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