Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Nurturing children at school 

by Ellyn Satter, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Family Therapist

We are fortunate to have the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), even though lunches aren’t as good tasting and filling nowadays dues to low-fat, low-sodium, and yes, low-calorie policies. However, NSLP sees to it that children get fed, and provides breakfasts and even evening meals in some cases. More children than ever before qualify for free or reduced-price school menus. In spite of its shortcomings, we need NSLP and it does a lot of good, so let’s consider what we each can do in order to nurture our children with school meals.

School lunch supports you in providing for your child

If you are a financially strapped parent who qualifies for these meals, remember that you are providing for your child. You are making positive use of community resources to see to it that your child gets his or her needs met. You do not need to apologize for this. In fact, you can help your child by finding positive ways to think and do that will allow him or her to feel truly nurtured by the program.

Treat the school nutrition program with respect

We all have our food traditions, prefer them, and feel strongly about them. School nutrition programs are a popular target for criticism. However, your child depends on school lunch to get fed. When we criticize or disdain the food they depend on, children feel ashamed of eating it and liking it. You need not worry that school food will undermine your family foodways. At home, you are entitled to follow your convictions and preferences, and your child will learn to eat and prefer the foods you enjoy.

Assume your child will cope with the food

Children eat what tastes good to them on a given day at a given meal. They don’t eat a food because they have been taught that it is good for them. They only eat what tastes good, and that varies from one day to the next.

School nutrition personnel do not do sadistic feeding. They like children and are kind to them. They greet them. They offer choices. When they introduce a new food, they also offer a familiar and generally liked food. They make a bread-type food available so your child can eat that if all else fails. They take no for an answer. They do not insist your child eat everything on his or her tray. Go to bat for your child if your school nutrition program fails in any of these areas. To see a school cafeteria that brilliantly follows the division of responsibility in feeding, see this wonderful and entirely free video.1

Understand normal child eating behavior

Children eat erratically. Some days they eat a lot, other days they eat only a little. Some days they eat some of everything that is put in front of them; other days they eat only one or two foods. Some days they love a particular food; other days they ignore that food completely. They eat what tastes good to them on a given day at a given meal. They don’t eat a food because they have been taught that it is good for them. They only eat what tastes good, and that varies from one day to the next.

Reassure your child that s/he doesn’t have to eat

If you have a family rule that your child must eat all of everything that is put before him or her – or even has to taste it – your child will be afraid of the school nutrition program. She will assume that the same rules apply at school as at home, and she will worry about not being able to eat the unknown foods that the unfamiliar people in the great big cafeteria will offer her. While you are at it, reassure your child that she can eat only part of a meal and that every meal will have something that she can fill up on.

Assume your child will learn and grow

Children always do better if they have an out. Your reassurance that s/he doesn’t have to eat if she doesn’t want to will help your child to push forward and learn to eat the unfamiliar food in the cafeteria. She will learn to manage foods you don’t have at home and to respect foodways that are different from yours.

Minimize the negative

Help your child cope with a less-than-filling school lunch by offering her a good breakfast that contains protein, fat, and carbohydrate. Provide her with a substantial after-school snack that does the same. Guard against your child’s developing a heightened appetite for forbidden foods by making them a routine part of family meals and snacks.

Eat at school occasionally

Eating at school gives your blessing to the school nutrition program. Your child will experience those blessings when s/he eats there. Nothing gives your blessings more strongly than your enjoying the food and the lunch-room sociability with your child.


  1. Stenberg M, Bark K. Comfortable Cafeterias: Positive, pleasant mealtimes in schools.http://www.opi.mt.gov/Programs/SchoolPrograms/School_Nutrition/MTTeam.html#gpm1_7. Bozeman, MT: Montana Office of Public Instruction 2011.

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