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Students Not Eating Lunch At School, Should Parents and Teachers Be Concerned?

Students Not Eating Lunch At School, Should Parents and Teachers Be Concerned?

Returning to school isn’t easy for kids because many of them are going through changes in themselves and/or in their lives. As we are kicking off the school year, the more we are hearing that kids aren’t eating lunch at school. Now, for kids who struggle with an Eating Disorder, this can be very challenging. So, why is this happening? Why is this important? According to Kristine, one of our Registered Dietitians, it is well known that school meals are critical to students’ wellbeing and readiness to learn. A balance from each food group allows for a consistent steady supply of energy needed to feed the brain and promote alertness and learning. This new trend is surfacing in schools whereby kids are opting out of lunch and what she is hearing from her own clients are:

  • Feeling self-conscious.
  • Kids are being teased or made fun of for carrying a lunch box or lunch bag to campus.
  • Kids being teased about the contents of their lunch either being too healthy or too processed.
  • That it is inconvenient to stand in the cafeteria line and uncool to sit in the cafeteria and more cool to hang out in the school commons rather than eat.

Which is what we were hearing from many high school students across Arizona who shared with us what they are seeing at lunch. Here’s what we found out when we interview them: *please note all answers are anonymous

First student from Anthem AZ, said,

“Very rarely do you see kids eating at school, most of the time people sit at their table and just snack on bags of chips, cookies, crackers, etc. but not many go through the lunch line to get actual meals. It’s considered “embarrassing” to carry around a lunch box in school, kids say it’s “childish” to carry them around campus. Many kids make comments about the food options that they have at the school and how it is very similar everyday and not many
kids like the food choices they have! My friend group in particular doesn’t really talk about how “unhealthy” the food is, but it does come up in other groups. Students talk about other kids portion sizes and make fun of students if their food smells a certain way, making them shy away from bringing their lunch to school. Students also talk about their body image when around lunch time, commenting about their bloating or how they feel after they ate. At this school there are two times for lunch, which may relate to why some students are hungry or not, I think.” A question was asked, would you sit alone and eat in front of people? “This question was hard to answer, because I wouldn’t want to eat in front of people alone because it feels awkward, as people would watch me eat by themselves and judge me, so I’d just sit somewhere in private and eat alone. If I knew someone that had an Eating Disorder I would sit and eat with that person if they asked. If they didn’t want that though, I wouldn’t because they wouldn’t want them to be uncomfortable.”

Second student is from Phoenix AZ, says

“I am in recovery for an Eating Disorder and it has been so crazy as I am on my journey to recovery and what I am seeing at lunch! At my school there are 1,000+ students all eating lunch together at one time. A lot of the students complain and say it’s too hot to be outside and there are way too many students at one lunch, it’s impossible to get food in the lines. So a lot of students
don’t wait and just simply don’t eat. You see and hear so many students judging each other and making comments about what they are eating, how they look, if what they have is too much, etc. and how it is negatively affecting others. It just needs to be talked about and I’m worried about these students and them not eating. I have learned through my experience with my Eating Disorder how helpful and magical food is to your body, to your brain, and I don’t want other kids to get there.”

Third and final student is from San Tan, AZ and says,

“Most of the students eat “lunch” at school, but they eat more of a snack than a meal. There are three lunch periods at our school, so it is not too crowded. Some things I hear students talk about is how gross the food is and that it’s not cooked all the way, causing them to not
want it. We have the same food choices everyday from pizza, to a salad bar, sub station, smoothie station, a nacho bar, and we also have burritos. You hear a lot of people talking about their body image in school at lunch, especially in the bathrooms. You hear students talk about feeling fat after they ate, bloated, not looking good in their outfits, etc. If I knew someone with an Eating Disorder I would
sit with them and make sure they were eating, and if they told me they didn’t want me to sit and watch them, I would find someone they’re more comfortable with.” Now, the same question was asked, would you sit alone and eat in front of people? “This question was hard to answer but, I’d definitely go somewhere else to eat like the bathroom and eat alone because people will judge me and watch me eat and I don’t like that.”

Winter Groeschl, MC, LPC has been hearing a few words from her own clients as well about kids going back to school navigating their experience at school lunch.
Here are some things she has heard the last several weeks:

  • Triggering as other people don’t eat, comments about food
  • Don’t eat because it is the time to see friends/socialize if they are in different classes and they don’t see them all day
  • School lunch is ‘gross’
  • Anxiety around eating in front of other people
  • Not enough time as lines are long
  • Lunch is at an earlier time than they feel hungry at
  • Kids not bringing their lunch/not having the ‘time’ to make it or money, anxiety around seeing others without food so bringing extra or evening giving others their own lunch/food
  • Just eat after school due to not feeling hungry at lunch time/not wanting to eat

Kristine and Winter talk about how it is very concerning especially with individuals struggling with eating disorders, that students aren’t eating lunch and how it is going to affect students. Some kids have spent their entire summer in treatment for eating disorders and simply cannot afford to sit lunch out. These clients are at risk for low blood sugar ( hypoglycemia), triggering excess hunger later which can trigger a binge or a restrictive mindset that may lead to a complete reversal in their eating disorder treatment progress. So how can we help them? Do we need to encourage students more about the importance of eating and how it fuels the body? What can we do as a community to help kids get the nutrition they need during a school day?

Taking a deeper look into that, how can we help students become less fearful of what others may think, understand the importance of nutrition at lunch, and to help change the attitudes towards eating a meal at school. What if teachers/faculty/volunteers could offer an opportunity to have group meal settings in their classrooms? They can open a spot where students can sit and be with others and eat, while feeling ‘safe’. What if in PE class, we had Dietitians come in and talk about nutrition and discuss the importance of weight neutrality and destigmatize weight bias? These opportunities we have may change the next generations and help
them feel more comfortable to do something that is very natural and okay to do. Because when these students aren’t getting enough or the proper nutrition it can cause students to become less active and less interested in work given or activities given in class. They begin to withdraw and become less engaged in social interactions with classmates, causing bigger issues in class! Here is the thing though, each student will have a different opinion about the topic of ‘students eating at lunch’ and that’s okay because each has had a different experience! What we are
seeing though, is that these students are seeing very similar occurrences and they’re talking about an issue that our providers are seeing and wanting to help with!

At Sinnergy Wellness Group we provide dietitians and therapists who are very skilled
and willing to assist you and your adolescent into navigating back to school if needed. Don’t hesitate to reach out and get the help you need!

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