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What Your Kids Are REALLY Doing During School Lunch


By Vicki Little

Ah, we work so hard trying to instill good table manners in our children. We say the same things so many times that they slip out as easily as asking someone to pass the salt.

“How was your day? Get your elbows off the table, please.” Or “That sounds great, but please wait until you are done chewing next time.” Then there’s, “Please use your napkin and not your T-shirt, speaking of which did you remember to pack your gym clothes?”

We can only hope that our words sink in when our children enjoy a meal outside of the house, or when we are not around to correct their table manners.

I hate to break it to you, but all rules are off when it comes to eating in the school lunchroom. Does this really come as a surprise? We can’t totally blame them because they have a limited amount of time to eat their favorite part of their lunch, wipe their fingers on the note you lovingly included, and carefully dump out half the carrots so you think they were eaten. Every second counts, and there simply isn’t enough time for manners. Not to mention social pressure from peers isn’t exactly there to encourage good table manners. In fact, it might be the opposite. I have been in the trenches with my kids, and now I’ll share what really happens in the lunchroom.

If you haven’t enjoyed a cafeteria lunch since your own school days, I recommend that you join your child sometime. The food isn’t as bad as you remember, and there are actually many more options than before, such as salads and sandwiches. Or you can bring your own lunch and avoid cafeteria food (and long lines) altogether.

All schools have different processes, but generally the kids line up together, and those with home lunches can sit down right away while the others have to wait in line and hope that the kids in front of them remember their student numbers on the first try. I have actually done both with my children, and believe me, those extra two to five minutes count.

With their extra time, the kids at the home lunch table excitedly push one another aside in their efforts to sit next to friends, or at the very least, next to the kid whose mom packs extra cookies. The kids who have a Thermos of soup or an item that needs to be cut open raise one hand while they evaluate their lunch. An apple takes WAY too long to eat, so that gets set aside. The sandwich is OK and quick, but those chips taste better, so of course, they get eaten first. As the TA helps open Thermoses, cheeses and juice pouches, the children quickly shove food into their mouths while they chat about their days. Again, there’s no time for manners because if anyone wants to get a word in edgewise, they need to talk when they can whether food is in their mouth or not. In case you are wondering, the kids from the hot-lunch line are finally sitting down and ignoring the portions of fruits and veggies on their trays. Instead, they are shoving fries in their mouths by the fistful as they attempt to talk to friends as well.

And then the five-minute warning comes. For the home-lunch kids, this comes after they have been eating for about 10 minutes, but for the school-lunch kids, many have only been eating for about five minutes. Long enough to finish the ice cream they spent the extra $2 on, not long enough to put anything of real substance into their bellies. This is when the real chaos begins. If you have seen Hook with Robin Williams you have a good idea of what this time looks like. All the kids use two hands: one to shove food chaotically into their mouths, and the other to throw their trash into their lunch boxes or to try to score three points with the trashcan.

Amid the chaos, there are a few things I took note of. First, I noticed that if you are told your child gets 15 minutes for lunch, they really only have 10 minutes to eat — if they are the first kid in the lunchroom and they have a homemade lunch. If they are the last kid through the lunch line, they will get approximately 5 to 7 minutes.

I also noticed that this “meal” is the complete opposite of what we want for our children. They don’t get to interact with one another much since they are constantly being reminded that they need to eat quickly (with no blame on the school, it is important that the kids get fuel for those little bodies). Each time I visited for lunch, I didn’t have enough time to eat everything — both for a school-bought AND a homemade lunch. It certainly didn’t feel like a relaxing “down” time. It was almost like another class where you pass the test if you rush to finish your lunch before time runs out, and the MVP is the kid whose belly has so much air their burp lasts the longest.

So if your kid comes home with a lunchbox full of trash and only half of their sandwich eaten, give them a break. They are merely learning skills in survival of the fittest. As for me, next time I am packing a lunch with a protein-packed granola bar, a fruit salad for a sugar kick, and a bottle of carbonated water so that I can give the reigning burp champion a run for his money.


Vicki Little is a work-at-home mom with two young kids. A Colorado native, she is the Publisher and Editor of Macaroni Kid Aurora and Downtown Denver. In her free time, she enjoys volunteering, reading, camping, or enjoying a bottle of wine with friends.

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