Chaos in the School Cafeteria: How to Find the Calm

by on November 7, 2011 · 12 comments                       


As a feeding therapist who works with children who have difficulty eating in various environments, I often visit kids in their school cafeterias – otherwise known as the school CAFÉ-FEARIA, according to one 7 year old client of mine. Have you ever visited a café-fearia?

Claming the chaos in the school lunch room. How to help your child eat lunch at school.

IMAGINE being a brand new kindergartner, toting your sparkly new Disney™ princess lunchbox down the school hallway when you turn and enter utter chaos. Older kids tower over you as you negotiate the sea of tables and try to find where you a supposed to sit for the next 20 minutes and try to eat. Irritating florescent lights flicker while children chatter, teachers clap loudly to insist on silence and rebellious potato chip bags ignore the adult plea and pop open with a BANG! Metal lunchboxes clang as hungry tykes begin to unpack a multitude of tins, cartons, juice boxes and squeezable thing-a-ma-jigs to display on the giant tables like a fire sale gone wrong.

Squeeze in and climb up onto your bench, feet dangling, and balance there while your elbows rise up to shoulder level in order to stabilize yourself on the table edge; your little eyes barely able to see past the barrage of baggies and containers spread before you. Ignore the boy next to you who keeps elbowing you in the ribs repeatedly as he turns to talk to his friend on the other side of him – and turns back to eat – and turns back to his friend. By the time you get the baggies opened, the juice box straw finally unwrapped and poked hard enough that it squirts you in the face, all while holding up your other hand  to signal the teacher “Can you please open this lid?” well, another 5 minutes have passed by.  Meanwhile, that nice girl that played with you at the craft table this morning keeps smiling at you and wants to chat…and you do too.

Schools do Care

Fortunately for your little munchbug, most schools are readily open to suggestions. For 5 year old Carly, her school recognized the importance of lunchtime and how it impacts the rest of a child’s day. Carly was the tiniest child in the classroom and easily overwhelmed by noise, sights and sound. Upon entering the cafeteria, the last thing she could do was focus on what her teacher needed her to do: eat.

Carly’s priorities were:

  1. Dealing with the chaos
  2. Making friends

Carly’s principal allowed us to bring in a smaller table with chairs that not only fit Carly, but most of her classmates, too. We positioned the table in the corner, so that Carly flanked one wall on her left and faced two friends across the table, who likewise had a wall behind them to minimize distractions. Carly’s feet touched the ground to provide stability and the table was at “sternum height” so her elbows easily rested by her food.  (If I might use an example that perhaps adults can relate to:  Ever try to sit on a towering bar stool with no foot support while you sip that lovely martini and chat with the handsome man next to you?  It’s not easy!) Kids need core stability for fine motor skills like biting, chewing and swallowing and opening lunch containers. “Right-sized” tables provide that stability.

Carly eats from her EasyLunchbox Container

To make the experience even more efficient – Carly brought her EasyLunchbox. See that adorable, curly headed moppet in the picture above? One easy lift-off lid and she is free to gab with her friends and grab bite size pieces of fresh, yummy lunch! By the way, check out the pile of pandemonium on the rest of the table. How do the those precious kids even find what they are supposed to be eating? No wonder half their food ends up back coming back home, uneaten! Oh, and see that bigger kid dangling his feet behind her? THAT’S where Carly used to sit!

Whenever possible, find the calm in the chaos by:

  1. Little feet on the floor
  2. Table top at sternum height to see your food and rest your arms.
  3. Swift, easy-open container: Easylunchboxes!
  4. Fresh, bite-size foods to grab and gab.
  5. Smaller tables reduce noise, foster social skills and provide stability for little munchbugs!

For more ideas on helping your child be a more adventurous eater, visit My Munch Bug on Facebook.

Melanie Potock, Pediatric Speech Language Pathologist

Dancing_in_the_Kitchen Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP is a national speaker on the topic of picky eating and  the authorof Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids: How to Teach Your Child About the Joy of Food!  With over 12 years’ experience treating children with feeding difficulties, Mel’s approach to developing feeding skills includes the fundamentals of parenting in the kitchen, such as how to avoid mealtime debates and creating more joyful mealtimes, even with a hesitant eater.  Mel wrote this book in the same manner that she works with families; with an open heart and a touch of humor. She has also produced the popular children’s CD Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food,  currently being considered for a Grammy nomination. Both products are available on her website at

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1 Laura @MOMables November 7, 2011 at 2:12 pm

This is so interesting! I never thought about the chaos of the cafeteria! My kids go to a small school where lunch periods are separated in 25min increments every 2 grades. My kids say that lunch is fun, they get to eat outdoors sometimes (weather permitting) and don’t mind the atmosphere. My biggest issue is the lunch period being WAY too short to eat their lunch!!

2 Melanie Potock November 7, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Hi Laura! Sounds like your kids’ school has some great strategies – I love the 2 grade intervals. I agree – lunchtime is way too short in most schools. It’s important for kids to have a little “down time”, chill out, chat with friends and BREATHE (and eat a nutritious lunch too)!

3 melissa sharp November 7, 2011 at 6:36 pm

Having a sensory-sensitive child myself (8 year old with autism), I appreciate this post.
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4 Melanie Potock November 7, 2011 at 7:12 pm

Hi Melissa – You may like the vinyl pocket tutorial that Kelly posted recently. You can also find it at I use Easy Lunch Boxes and this vinyl pocket to provide a visual schedule for my little clients with ASD. I like the way the lid provides a buffer if the child needs to separate himself from too much input and it provides a nice backdrop for checking his schedule as needed. Thank you for your comment above – the sensory piece can be really challenging!

5 Kelly Lester November 12, 2011 at 7:59 pm

Thanks Melissa. Yes, I think Melanie brings up such great points here. It’s amazing to me that I never really thought about this stuff much when my kids were little. And they were ALWAYS hungry when they got home from school. Gee, I wonder why…

6 Greta @gfunkified November 8, 2011 at 4:18 pm

Reading this and thinking about my 6yo in the cafeteria made my heart race a little! They have the long tables, but they are sternum-level, I believe. And we use our Easy Lunch Boxes every day. I have started making sure everything is easily opened and in small pieces, because I know he gets distracted and doesn’t eat very quickly.
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7 Kelly Lester November 12, 2011 at 7:52 pm

I know what you mean Greta. When my girls were in preschool and kindergarten (long before ELBs) I remember that their lunchboxes often used to come home with a lot of uneaten food. It was really hard for them to focus on eating, and now I know that some of the packaged foods I used to include surely slowed down the process as well :(

8 Ludicrous Mama November 10, 2011 at 1:14 am

I saw something similar this past Summer at ballet camp. Parents were to pack a snack for their own kids, and my daughter sat there (on the floor in the lobby) with 30 other kids, and she was the ONLY ONE with a waste-free snack. I made sure to give her an easy-open box (we love our ELBs, but for this ballet camp, I used Disney snack boxes with side-snaps, since I didn’t need to pack as much food. The problem with them was that the side latches pop off sometimes. DOH!)
So my little girl (easily the youngest one there, as she was freshly 3, which was the youngest age allowed) sat there, popped open her snack and got out her water bottle (tested at the store to make sure she could operate it on her own) and was halfway done with her food before most of the other kids got to even START on their snacks!
A few of the girls had those foldover cheapie plastic baggies, so they were able to get into their snacks on their own. But *every* single *other* child had to have one of the TWO teachers open every bag of chips, every froot snax packet, every juice box/pouch, every double-zipper Ziploc, every pre-packaged processed chock-full-o-chemicals snack that their moms had packed for them. And most of THOSE were in disposable lunch bags as well.
And every camp day, all the girls near my daughter sat there pointing at her little carrots cut into flower shapes, cheese sticks cut into little nibblets, sandwiches cut with mini cookie cutters, and a few flower sprinkles lovingly pressed into her cream cheese bagel bits. While she growled at them and clutched her treasured snack close to her chest, lest any morsel get snatched up by a ‘friend!’
Since she wasn’t comfortable with being dropped off, I sat in the lobby during her Summer camps to help her feel comfortable enough to trust the teachers and go in and have fun, so I got to see how much time was WASTED opening all those little plastic packages. And how much GARBAGE was accumulated, with just the equivalent of one school classroom’s worth of kids! (Roughly 2 plastic grocery-store bags worth, including all the drink containers.) She would be done with her snack and flop around bored, since the teachers would wait mostly until everyone was done to go back into camp, and the shyer ones didn’t even get to start their snack until one of the teachers noticed that they couldn’t get into their packages! It was maddening.
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9 Ludicrous Mama November 10, 2011 at 1:17 am

Oh, and the kids who COULD open their pre-packed foods ended up spilling half of it when the package finally popped/ripped open. Gah!
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10 Kelly Lester November 12, 2011 at 7:55 pm

Now I’m REALLY glad I was never around to actually watch the lunch time routines when my girls were little. I would have cried. But yea, now I can just contend with the GUILT, lol. Your daughter has the best mom ;)

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