Lunch box Dinners: Preparing for the School Cafeteria

Help your child to get ready to eat in the school cafeteria

Ah summer! Ten weeks of pool parties, picnics and BBQs! Before you know it, it’s mid-August and your little ones will be joining their friends at elementary school, or perhaps all-day kindergarten. For those kids who are about to go to their very first day of school, it also means their very first day in a school cafeteria.

If you’re reading this right now, you are probably a parent. I’d like to introduce myself to you (hello!): I am a feeding therapist.

End Cafe-FEAR-ia!

My job focuses on teaching kids to be more adventurous eaters. Let me gently break the news to you that many of my little clients are scared to death of the cafeteria. In fact, one little boy I work with called it “The Café-FEARia.” Imagine your 5 year old, on his first day of school, as he tries to negotiate a sea of kids filing into the school lunchroom, attempting to locate their lunch box among 20 others piled into a giant bin and ultimately squeeze into a tiny place to sit at the assigned table. Now, unlatch that brand spankin’ new lunchbox (how does that latch work, anyway?) and peer inside…the clock is ticking…your little munch bug now has 20 minutes left to eat – at the most.

For the kids I work with, summer means more than enjoying family time grilling hot dogs and spitting watermelon seeds.  It means once a week “lunch box dinners” where the entire family pretends to eat in the school cafeteria!  The kids new to the lunch room process help pack the dinners in EasyLunchbox containers and then place up to 3 containers in one EasyLunchbox cooler bag. At the entrance to the kitchen or dining area, one parent stashes a large bin, just like the kids will find at school. Ideally, throw a few extra, empty lunchboxes in there too; just to help your child practice digging through the batch to find the one that belongs to him.

Your child: The Lunchbox Master

When it’s time for dinner, your cafeteria newbie gets to be in charge. Everyone sits at the table, and he goes to the bin to find his/her lunchbox, bringing it to the table. It’s his job to unzip it, pull out the EasyLunchbox containers and pass them to the rest of the family. Everyone opens their container and here’s the trick – practice this little script: “I’ve got ____ in my lunch!”  In all my years of sitting in school lunchrooms and listening to young kids, it’s ALWAYS the first thing they say to each other!  It’s their traditional conversation starter, usually accompanied by them proudly holding up the celebrity food – the star of the lunchbox. I can attest that I hear just as many kids enthusiastically say “I have fruit today!” as “I have (fill in any junk food here) today!”  Try for the fruit or the veggies…it’s really okay…it’s just as cool to have vegetables cut up into stars or other fun shapes so they can exclaim, “I’ve got cucumber stars today!”

Enjoy this time!  The most important word in the phrase family dinner is “family”. Once the meal is over, everyone puts the lid back on their Easy Lunchbox container and passes it back to the child. He puts the containers back in the lunch bag and zips it back up and places it back in the bin. You may be wondering why I don’t suggest lunchboxes for each place setting. I’m big on building kids’ confidence in preparation for learning a new task. I want your child to see himself as the “Lunchbox Master” and the family expert on how to negotiate the school cafeteria.  Being in charge of a family event like Lunchbox Dinner Night is quite the power booster!  When she enters that school lunchroom for the first time, I want her to be thinking “I got this” so she can focus on eating a nutritious lunch and making new friends in the process.

In the school cafeteria, the number one goal for parents and teachers is for kids to eat a healthy lunch.  If you ask a kid what he wants most during lunch time,  it’s to hang out with his friends. Prepping during the summer months allows kids to focus on their #1 priority, making friends, while they still enjoy a nutritious lunch, because they are not overwhelmed with the entire scenario.

Happy Summer!

I’d love to hear what you packed for your family’s Lunchbox Dinner Night. I bet it will be scrumptious!

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 FoodBoth products are available on her website at

Melanie with two of her clients