Feeding children in school: fighting pickiness and parents’ rights

Feeding children is often a challenging task, and school feeding brings a whole new dimension to it. For parents of picky eaters, the school cafeteria can be both a blessing and a curse. It can be difficult to find your way around the rights you have as a parent and the possibilities of how you can influence school meals. Always focus on communicating with the device and trying to find a solution together. Because bringing home-made food to the child should only be a last resort. Let’s look at different strategies and possible solutions to the problems.

Děti obědvají ve školce jídlo z misek

Author

Mgr. Jitka Ludvíčková

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Two sides of a coin

One of the potential pluses of school meals is peer influence. When children see their friends eating vegetables or trying new foods, they are often more likely to be willing to do the same. Also, stable routines, such as sitting at a table and limited options for substitute meals, can motivate a child to try new foods, which can expand his food repertoire.

However, this peer influence has its downsides. It can encourage unhealthy eating habits or intensify pre-existing fears about food. What one child finds motivating may be a source of stress for another, further exacerbating their pickiness or reluctance to attend school.

Feeding children in school facilities: basic assumptions

If the child is to attend kindergarten and is not yet a preschooler, it is important to consider whether he is able to eat outside the home at all and whether it is not advisable to wait until the start and resolve the situation. In the case of preschoolers and children already in school, it is already necessary to look for concrete solutions. Because the child must not starve on purpose. A regular daily diet is important; if children are hungry for a long time, it can negatively affect their mood, learning ability and patience. Furthermore, if they go home hungry in the afternoon, they will prefer their “safe” foods, which greatly limits the scope for expanding their food repertoire.

A child should feel safe in a school facility. If this environment is associated with pressure to eat, whether from the pedagogical team or peers, it can have a negative impact not only on eating, but also on the child’s relationship with this facility. Children should be focused on learning and building relationships with peers at school, and undue attention to food can affect these tasks.

Finally, it is important to understand that the child should not be forced to eat. I don’t mean just finishing everything on the plate, but also enforcing the rule that everything must be tasted. If a child has an aversion to certain foods, this “harmless” rule can trigger a stress reaction. I believe that the vast majority of you also remember a similar memory of pressure from kindergarten.

Legislation: what you should know

School meals are organized and financed by state institutions and must follow established rules and guidelines. The main goal is to offer children a balanced and nutritionally rich diet. Hygienic standards of canteens are regulated by decree no. 137/2004, which also sets the parameters for the possibility of eating homemade food in the school environment. The standard subsidy for children’s meals is around 60%. The parent usually pays only the price of food, the costs of personnel or supplies are subsidized by the state. Parents’ possibilities to influence the composition and quality of school meals are therefore limited.

Regarding pre-school meals, decree no. 14/2005 stipulates that if a child is in kindergarten at the time when food is served, he must participate in the meal together with others. For children without dietary restrictions, it is then obligatory to eat food prepared by the school canteen; bringing your own food is not allowed. Special diet meals are only possible on the basis of a medical certificate.

When it comes to meals in school facilities, i.e. in school canteens, school canteens in the Czech Republic are not obliged by law to provide dietary meals, this regulation only applies to kindergartens. In addition, meals are no longer a mandatory part of the school day in schools. Children have the opportunity to eat their own food from home and lunch takes place outside of school hours.

Individual approach to dietary restrictions

Special dietary measures often result from allergies, intolerances or metabolic diseases, and it is usually not a problem to find a suitable solution for both the child and the educational institution. The situation is more complicated when the child can eat different foods, but refuses them. In such cases, it is important to distinguish between “picky” eaters, who have a limited repertoire of foods that they are willing to consume, but are able to eat at least partially in the facility, and children who are able to starve rather than taste the offered food that is not in according to their strict requirements.

If a child in kindergarten does not eat at all or only eats very little, it is necessary to consult the pediatrician about this situation. He can, most often based on the recommendation of a therapist, issue an official recommendation, which should be respected in the same way as in the case of any other dietary restrictions. For example, oral hypersensitivity (increased sensitivity of the mouth) is also a medical condition that requires an individual approach and adequate measures.

Consequences of individual catering in kindergarten

When meeting the individual dietary needs of children, it is important to take into account not only the logistical and labor-intensive nature of such an approach, but also the potential social consequences. Preparing and distributing meals for a large number of children is time and resource intensive, and special dietary requirements can add to this burden. In addition, workers in these facilities often face pressure from other children, which complicates the situation.

The social aspect is also important, because the special eating habits of one child can affect the dynamics of the whole group. Classmates may envy the child’s own food, or even mock him. One of my patients has been nicknamed Rohlík since kindergarten because he mainly consumes rolls. Although the boy is already in the second grade of elementary school, he still cannot get rid of the nickname.

For these reasons, it is necessary to carefully consider whether there is a need to intervene in the catering in the facility and, if necessary, in what way.

Communication and awareness: the basics of an effective solution

If we talk about solving problems with food in kindergarten, we always start with the parents by adjusting the conditions. However, quality and open communication with the device, but especially with those who are closest to the children, is absolutely key for this step. This includes not only teachers and assistants, but also cafeteria staff. For effective communication, it is essential to explain the reasons why you need to address the situation and what your child’s specific needs are. Coercion usually doesn’t work; instead, it is important to take a kind and constructive approach. While it may be tempting to start a dialogue with senior management, the day-to-day interaction and practice that educators and cafeteria staff have with your child is key.

It is also very useful to know the relevant regulations and restrictions that may affect your options. If you know what rules and regulations the school facility is subject to, you can better set realistic expectations and propose workable solutions. For example, if the food is not prepared directly in the school cafeteria, but is imported, your options to change the menu will be more limited.

In the end, quality communication and information are necessary steps on the way to finding an optimal catering solution that suits both the child and the school facility.

Intervention: what you can do

  1. Consider the seriousness of the situation. By making changes, you can affect the course and dynamics of the entire class, so it is necessary to think carefully about the extent of the changes and to what extent they are needed.
  2. Communicate with the child. Tell him what will be for snacks and lunch that day in kindergarten. You can, of course, leave out “explosive words” such as fish spread or pea porridge – feel free to say that there will be a sandwich with spread and porridge. But the child should be informed.
  3. Make sure the food is suitable for the child’s skills. Sometimes children who have delayed food processing skills use effective masking in the form of preferences for foods that are easy for them to process. The menu of such a child can then look like this: lipánek and other dairy products, chicken nuggets, roll (which they eat in small pieces) and brumík or other soft snacks. In such a case, however, it is necessary to seek the help of an expert.
  4. Ask the nursery staff to serve the child regular food, but do not encourage, persuade or force the child to eat or taste. Unfortunately, the rule of having to taste still works in some facilities.
  5. Ask the kindergarten staff to serve the individual components of the meal separately to the child – i.e. meat, sauce and side dish separately. On the same plate, just don’t mix them together. Similarly, for snacks, it is advisable to serve bread and other components on the side (spread, cheese, etc.) separately. This step can dramatically increase the likelihood that the child will eat at least a dry side dish, for example. Or on the contrary, at least meat and the like.
  6. Ask the nursery staff to keep the amount of food served to a minimum if it is a component that the child does not strongly prefer (for example, meat or sauce). That is, the amount of sauce, for example, in the size of ten crowns. The given food is served, but it is easy to “avoid” it on the plate.
  7. Follow the menu for the given week and if there is a food that you know the child will not consume at all, try to pick it up right after lunch. Well, not until the afternoon. If possible and in exceptional situations, this is a much more effective solution than a starving child.

When is it necessary to choose a more radical solution?

If you feel that the advice above will not be enough for your child, it is appropriate to consider the possibility of delivering your own food from home. It is advisable to start trying this option only on those days when you know that the child will not eat the food at all, i.e. the food served is completely outside your child’s repertoire. In this case, however, you will have to pay for all meals, regardless of whether or not the child is served.

However, for hygienic reasons, the facility may not allow you to bring your own food without a doctor’s certificate. But sometimes they are willing to try this method for a while. It’s good to ask, but be completely understanding in the event that management won’t let you. In such a case, however, it is necessary to ask the pediatrician to issue a certificate. However, the pediatrician may require a referral from a specialist with whom you are dealing with the problem.

Food brought from home is not the final solution

If your situation requires bringing food from home, the situation needs to be addressed. Depending on the nature of the problem, it is advisable to contact speech therapists (mainly oral skills), occupational therapists (aversion to aspects of food), psychologists (inability to eat in a foreign environment) or other experts dealing with this issue.

Food at school

When it comes to meals at school, the situation is somewhat simpler, somewhat more complicated. Here you already have to rely on the child, because no one is watching him anymore. The food he eats during the day – whether as a snack or at lunch in the school canteen – is entirely dependent on his motivation. It is very easy to throw the snack uneaten in the trash or return the lunch without tasting it.

Basic rules:

  1. Guide the child to tell you the truth. Of course, this is not always easy, but a good start is the fact that you will not be angry with him in any case. Even if he tells you that he gave the entire snack to a friend or returned the entire lunch.
  2. Prepare a balanced meal for the child – it should contain representatives of complex carbohydrates (bread, cereals), proteins (ham, yogurt, etc.) and fats (cheese, nuts). It is advisable to supplement the snack with a portion of fruit or vegetables, ideally in fresh form. If the child does not tolerate fresh fruit, pack some that he can eat (for example, pressed fruit bars).
  3. Always pack only the kind of food and in the form that you know the child will be willing to eat. The time and space to try something new is primarily at home.
  4. In the extreme case, when the child is unable to eat during the lesson, for whatever reason, try to look at a solution in the form of, for example, a yogurt drink.
  5. Instruct the child to be able to ask the cafeteria staff for only the components he is able to eat if necessary. So, for example, only a side dish with sauce. It is always better for a child to eat at least something than to starve.
  6. If the child is expecting an afternoon program in the form of clubs and especially sports activities, it is a good idea to pack an afternoon snack that will provide him with enough energy until he arrives home.

Conclusion

Children’s eating habits and preferences can be a challenge for parents and educators in kindergartens and schools. It is important to approach food issues with understanding, patience and effective communication. Although more radical measures may need to be implemented, the key is to start with thoughtful interventions, expert consultation and open dialogue with the facility. The ultimate goal is a satisfied and well-fed child who has ideal conditions for education.

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