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My son is underweight to begin with. He has been treated in the past for a disorder impacting his eating (apraxia), in particular in chewing his food, especially certain kinds of meat so he can be a slow eater at times. Now that he is in kindergarten, he never finishes his lunch. Sometimes the whole lunch comes home, sometimes he has just taken a few bites. We have mentioned it to his teacher who said they would inform the lunchroom monitors, but that really does not seem to help the situation. What can we do to help him eat more? We aren't sure if too little time to eat is part of the problem or if he is interacting with his classmates instead of eating, but his teacher has observed him still chewing food when he return to class after lunch.

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Note: I am not a doctor, nor am I your doctor; please read the note at the last paragraph regarding the medical issue you mention.

Speaking for an average kindergartner, it is very common for them to not eat almost at all at lunch. My kindergartner, who is an extremely voracious eater, eats nearly none of his lunch, either. This is for two reasons:

  1. Proximity of snack to lunch. His schedule is 7am breakfast, 9:30am snack, 11:30am lunch. He eats a big breakfast, and typically eats his entire snack (a fruit or cheese stick or similar, not a lot of food but enough), and so is just not particularly hungry at 11:30.
  2. Desire to interact socially (either talking to friends, or going outside and playing). Often there is a limited period for eating and playing, say 45 minutes total, and he wants to do as much playing and as little eating as he can.

My suggestion would be to take this in a few different directions.

  • Give a snack that is as nutrient and calorie dense as possible, if you have home-provided snacks. If necessary, bring up the medical issue and use that as excuse to get permission to give him a bar or something else that will be more nutritive than the options the school may allow (ours for example has very poor options allowed, unfortunately, due to allergy concerns). We find that at our kindergarten, snack is almost always consumed by all kids in its entirety but not lunch. Note that nuts are an excellent choice for nutrient-dense food, but likely excluded; something like beef jerky or similar may be a good choice also.
  • Give smaller amounts of nutrient-dense foods for lunch. Things that he enjoys, but are also good, and are easy to eat while socializing. He's going to socialize, and you won't win that battle - so give him things that work with that. Hard boiled eggs that are already peeled for example. Tuna salad that he can eat with a spoon. Things like that with a good nutrient balance and calorie level that are as easy as possible to eat while talking, and don't take very much chewing.
  • Expect to feed him again at 3:30 or whenever his kindergarten is done for the day. If he has after-school care, send a second lunch for that with him. Odds are he hasn't eaten much from 9:30 to 3:30, if he didn't eat his lunch, so he'll be hungry. This is often when we get our kindergartner to eat - sometimes we just open up his lunch from Kindergarten and he eats the leftovers after pickup.

As far as the medical side of things, I strongly recommend talking to your pediatrician about this, including if you choose to do something like I recommend above. We're not really equipped here to handle medical questions, though perhaps others will have had experience with this specific issue.

  • Yeah, sorry. I did not really mean it as a medical question, you addressed the relevant points. It just adds one particular additional factor to the others your average kindergarten student faces. – demongolem Sep 30 '16 at 22:33
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    @demongolem You didn't ask it as a medical question any more than it should be - but it's important to note that there's a big difference between me being worried my (above average size/weight, good eater) kindergartner is not eating lunch, and an underweight child who has been treated for an eating disorder. It's good that you mentioned it in your question, and I wanted to make clear that I think my answer is applicable for children in general, but your pediatrician should be the one who says if it's applicable for you. – Joe Sep 30 '16 at 22:35
  • No one mentioned nuts as a calorie-dense snack. By Google, 1 cup of peanuts is 828 kcal! I know that some schools prohibit them due to concerns about food allergies, but I don't know how common that is. – Daniel Allen Langdon Nov 15 '16 at 15:35
  • Yeah, I don't mention nuts for that reason; so many schools forbid them now. – Joe Nov 15 '16 at 15:39
  • Added some detail about nuts/etc. since it's probably good to include even with the caveat. – Joe Dec 21 '16 at 18:36
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Thanks for asking! I have personal experience with this. @Joe gave some relevant advice.

I used to regularly refuse to eat at school starting from kindergarten extending well into my teens. Like @Joe's child, I have had a very robust appetite my entire life and in spite of my refusing to eat at school, have always maintained a healthy weight.

It wasn't until well into adulthood that I learned that I have Asperger's Syndrome. Like many others with Asperger's, I had some odd routines and habits about eating that I absolutely refused to budge from, habits that still stay with me. Some of these habits include an inability to have an appetite while seeing certain colors and patterns.

In short, I found the school environment an overwhelming environment where I had no appetite at all, especially for school food. My parents and teachers chastised me for this all my life.

Not understanding what was going on, my parents and teachers did the only thing they seemed to know to do. They tried to change my behavior by shaming and humiliating me. My father made some "tough love" suggestions such as allowing me to "starve" should I refuse to eat at school and then ask to be fed immediately after the school day ended. He also suggested that if I found certain colors and patterns offensive to my senses, perhaps I should be forced to wear only clothes with the offensive patterns until they ceased to be offensive. (Refusing to wear certain clothes was another habit that drew the ire of my parents.)

I'll tell you that if my parents and teachers had honestly asked me why I wasn't eating without putting fear or shame in the way, I could have told them. May I suggest to you that your child likely also knows why he is not eating, even if his reason is completely different from mine.

I think that your child will likely reveal the answer to you if you can pose the question to him and make it absolutely clear to him that he shall receive love and empathy from you for his answer rather than derision and scorn under the guise of "tough love". Unfortunately, this may be a thing that you really have to work hard at for a while, perhaps years even.

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All the others answers are great and all I wish to add is let him help prepare what goes to school. You make the initial choices and then he helps put things into small containers.

For my students, we suggested different tiny boxes and ziplocks -- like jewelry sized bags. Each little treasure held something the child liked and selected. The adult cuts the fruit and veggies and even the meats into small pieces. (2 grapes, a cherry tomato, or even a small carrot or celery stick cut into matchsticks or coins.) Another big item was dip. You can make sweet dips or use chocolate or flavoured yogurts or savoury dips like plain yogurt with onion or garlic or even salad dressing. Make small 'party' sandwiches. Your child might enjoy putting the items into containers. Call it his Treasure Box. Add something he doesn't know about every few days -- a surprise. One of my students had a mum who would make little cartoons of their dog. Encourage him to eat and try not to make him aware of how concerned you are. You could also sent him Pediasure, if he likes it -- or make him a smoothie or milkshake if they or you can safely keep it cool enough -- a smoothie might freeze and keep the rest of lunch cool while it thaws. Party Sandwiches

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