We have recently begun homeschooling. And it has opened my eyes to how much time is wasted in a public school day. But one thing was always so rigidly adhered to that you’d think the school day was so full of rich activities that there wasn’t room for one more thing. That is the lunch period.


Did you know most elementary aged kids get 15 minutes to eat their lunch and then they are expected to play for 15 minutes? That is the entire lunchtime allotted. That has to be hard for teachers too. But I want to focus this article on the children, specifically those with anxiety or autism.


Have you ever eaten a meal in a rush? How does it make you feel? For me, I get a stomach ache and sometimes want to return my food back up the way it came. It gets difficult to swallow and the food sticks in your mouth.  It can make eating your favorite food a miserable experience.


I volunteered in the lunch room at my son’s school for a year, and I watched those kids. They ate as fast as they could and then ran outside for some much needed free time. Those who ate a little slower were hurried along. And some didn’t get to finish their food.


My friend also has a son on the Autism Spectrum and she recently published her concerns about her son and his eating habits on a facebook support group we both belong to. With her permission, I will share it here.


“Looking for some advice/opinions. I have a nine-year-old aspie in the 3rd grade. He gets a very strict 15-minute window in which he can eat lunch, and then they make him pack up his things and go outside. This probably isn’t a problem for most kids, but my son is slow as tar when it comes to eating, and in these situations, he doesn’t see it as a matter of urgency and still just stays in his own little world and ends up eating next to nothing.


His typical amount of food eaten equates to around 1/4 of a sandwich, two or three baby carrots, and a small handful of crackers. I have tried getting him to drink smoothies or shakes in hopes of finding something he could eat quickly, but he won’t touch them. If he had some extra pounds on him or was a solid kid it wouldn’t bug me so much, but he is thin as a rail as it is, and I want him getting more nourishment during the day if possible.


So how do I make this happen? My only thought that seems doable is perhaps using one of his sensory breaks during the day as a time to have him eat a snack or something, but it would require his therapist or resource teacher to make sure that happens. Does anyone have any advice or experience with this? TIA!!”


Her post made me start to think. Aside from insisting that schools change, what CAN we do for our kids? Here are some ideas to help make lunch less stressful for your child.


1- Pack a lunch from home.


Often the time the kids have to eat is partly taken up by standing in line for hot lunch. When my son struggled with the pressure of lunchtime he found a great deal of peace knowing he would get his whole lunch time to eat. So we worked together to pack a lunch.


2- Let them choose their food.


My son and I had fun choosing fun foods for his lunch. We had basic foods too (always had a PB&J for example). And he chose his drink boxes and side dishes. Having him excited for his lunch made it easier on his anxiety.


3- Get the School involved.


My son has a 504, and many others have an IEP. The school is obligated to make accommodations for your child in these documents. Write into the document extra time for your child. Let them leave class early to start their lunch. Or arrange for your child to eat lunch in the office because the cafeteria is loud and distracting.


Our kids need time to be active. So don’t let them tell you that your child needs to lose recess to eat.  Often a flexible schedule can be added to a 504/IEP so they can take more time getting to and from places at school, and allow time for lunch.


Several moms offered some great suggestions. Among them were:


4 -Pack super convenient things


Applesauce pouches in his lunch to get him a little more food. No time is needed for chewing things like yogurt, smoothies, applesauce, shakes, etc. And the extra liquid will help the other food go down easier.


5 -Put extra carbs and fat into school lunches.

Crackers, pretzels, chips, meat, cheese sticks, and easy to eat fruit like bananas, etc. Chocolate is a nice treat and also filling when there is not a lot of time to eat.  Make sure the packaging is easy to open too. When I volunteered in the lunch room I was there primarily to help open difficult containers for kids.


6- Have big snacks after school.

When your child is stressed at lunchtime, and can’t eat easily, make sure they can make up the calories later in the day. It isn’t the solution for the lunch hour, but it is a way to help them cope.


7- Arrange for your child to get his own spot at lunch.


Some kids don’t like other kids sitting by them. Other kids are distractable and sitting alone will make it easier for them to eat in the time allowed. And for others, those kids are a distraction. at the lunch table to eat at because he doesn’t like kids to close to him.


This woman’s son also has a flexible schedule in his IEP so he can take more time getting to and from places at school. (When I volunteered at my son’s school there were designated spots for kids with serious food allergies. So I know that they can give your child their own spot when needed.)


To read more of Abby’s articles, click here.

I wish our kids weren’t rushed at lunchtime like they are in a public school setting. But we as parents are in a position to help them. Don’t be afraid to talk to the administrative staff, the principal, or even the lunch staff to make them aware of your concerns about your child. As they work with children, they need to be flexible to meet your child’s needs.  Creative solutions are sometimes necessary. But thinking outside the box can sometimes help us find the solutions our kids need.


I don’t like to bash the schools because there are good schools everywhere. And generally, teachers are trying to help our kids. But when students are in school for 7 hours a day, there is room for them to get a longer lunch break. We need to stop rushing our kids.  And let them be kids!  I think that the best scenario is for parents and teachers to work together. As you are trying to problem solve your child’s individual situation, get creative and get the school involved. We are our children’s greatest allies.


This article was previously published on Abby’s blog on Patheos.com.

About Abby Christianson
Abby is capable and caring. She is learning more about Autism and parenthood every day. Having completed training to be an RBT (Registered Behavior Technician) for ABA therapy she is beginning to understand her son. And even though she is the first to admit she makes a lot of mistakes, she is so grateful to be on this journey. She comes from a family with many autistic members. She invites us to join her, as she shares her adventures. She wishes to emphasize that Autism is a difference not a defect. If you or a family member have autism, Abby wants you to know that the challenges can be overcome, and there are blessings in autism. You or your loved one are not sick or broken. Together we will teach the world this new language.

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