The Hidden Value of School Lunch

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While debates swirl about the nutritional value of school lunch and farm to table programs that promote fruits and veggies (our school does this, and we love it!), I place a high value on school lunch for something that has nothing to do with what’s on my child’s plate: expanding options!

My son wasn’t always a picky eater. He used to just eat whatever you put in front of him, slowly and methodically all but the most child-averse foods would disappear from his plate. No tofu, no brussel sprouts, but anything else we ate, he ate. Right around the time he learned through hard-earned language skills that he held some power over his world, foods began to disappear from his will-eat list. By the time he started first grade we were down to pasta (plain), bread, a couple fruits and maybe, some days, peas. Oh and junk food – any kind. Not a balanced diet. I realize this is not the most restrictive diet a kid with autism can develop, but for my son is was a big regression.

At the same time, I watched carefully packed lunches come home barely eaten. Finally fed up with throwing away perfectly good, acceptable food, I decided to do something. And the school’s lunch menu inspired an idea that has worked to expand my son’s food options and ease my morning stress. Discover how we make school lunches work for us.

The lunch menu in our kitchen looks like the NSA got ahold of it. Each day has a code written on it designating what type of lunch my sons will eat that day. This code and the pattern it creates gets my son’s buy-in and reminds us all of our family’s lunch rules. Plus I know exactly what’s expected of me in the morning – one home lunch or two and for who. Or the best days of all – no home-packed lunches! Here’s how we do it:

  • Establish a pattern that is non threatening to your child: we started with one day each week for school lunch.
  • Expand on the pattern once a comfort level is reached. We are now up to three days each week.
  • If a home-packed lunch comes home uneaten more than twice, I get to pick what goes into the next one.
  • Each month we go through the calendar and code it together. I let him decide which school lunches he wants to eat and what he wants to take from home on the days that school lunch is unacceptable.

We are lucky in that our school has a lot of positive behavior supports for everyone in the cafeteria, promoting healthy eating habits and offering good choices. Plus they are required to eat a certain amount of their lunches. But I also make sure that I pack him a snack in his backpack each day, so if lunch is a total failure he won’t go hungry. This lunch coding process doesn’t work all the time, but as a general guideline it has inspired our son to try new things. Plus he’s added foods to his will-eat list, which makes all meals a little easier.

Author: Shannon

Shannon parents a son on the spectrum, lives in MN and writes to stay sane. She is passionate about connecting families to the services that will transform their lives. Read her full bio here.

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