Stay out of my child's lunch box

"In the quest to promote nutrition, schools may unintentionally be damaging kids' relationship with food," writes Kasey ...

"In the quest to promote nutrition, schools may unintentionally be damaging kids' relationship with food," writes Kasey Edwards. Photo: Stocksy

As a brand new school mum, I've recently discovered that schools have assumed the role of the Lunch Box Police. Every morning tea and lunch is a test to see if kids and their parents have faithfully followed the laws of healthy eating.

It's a nice idea, but it's questionable whether this has anything to do with health. In fact, in the quest to promote nutrition, schools may unintentionally be damaging kids' relationship with food.

One school in Brisbane is so strict that the children have to show their lunch boxes to the class each morning. I know of one child who is so anxious about having 'bad' food in his lunchbox that he doesn't want to go to school.

Another school in Melbourne's eastern suburbs was conducting food inspections at the school gate, prohibiting 'junk food' from entering the school grounds. Some enterprising pre-teens had an early lesson in supply and demand and realised that prohibition is a golden marketing opportunity. They started a black market trafficking doughnuts behind the school shed.


"What more evidence to do you need that food policing by schools is dangerous?" asks Clinical Psychologist Louise Adams. "It's teaching kids to hide their eating and to binge eat."

Adams who runs Treat Yourself Well Sydney, a healthy weight management clinic, says that the risks of schools having food policies far outweigh the benefits.

"From the US research, we can see that this sort of food policing has not resulted in a reduction of body weight in children," she says.

"As a psychologist specialising in this area, all I can see happening is that children are developing a fear of food. Fear is not going to make children healthy; it's just going to make their relationship with food disturbed."

The food rules of most schools appear to be less extreme than the examples above, but they are still inappropriate, if not damaging.

At two of the primary schools in my inner-Melbourne suburb, children are only allowed to eat fruit, vegetables and yoghurt for morning tea. This means that by lunchtime the kids are often starving. This is hardly conducive to learning.

But even worse, it's teaching children not to trust their bodies, and to develop an almost hysterical fear of certain foods.

One friend packed a biscuit made by grandma for her daughter's morning tea. Her daughter came home feeling embarrassed that she had 'bad' food in her lunch box.

"I put one biscuit in, not six," says my friend. "What's missing from this situation is the love and care that grandma put into making special biscuits for her granddaughter."

I've put a lot of effort into teaching my daughter to listen to her body and to decide when she is hungry and when she is full. If she's hungry and wants to eat two sandwiches for morning tea, then I encourage it. I don't tell her that she should ignore her appetite and only eat carrot sticks.

And we never discuss food in moral terms. There's no 'good' or 'bad' or 'healthy' or 'unhealthy' food in our house. Consequently, there's no shame or guilt.

But the food policies of these schools undermine our efforts as parents to help our kids develop healthy relationships with food.

It's also a stretch well beyond the school's realm of authority. As a parent, what goes into my child's lunch box should be my decision. It's based on our family values, my intimate knowledge of my child's current appetite, preferences, and wellbeing, our family budget, and what's in the cupboard.

So long as it doesn't threaten the wellbeing and health of other children — as, say, peanuts and nuts do — then it shouldn't be the concern of the school.

Coincidently, Adams' daughter came home from her school on Sydney's northern beaches just last week, distressed because she had a muffin for lunch and she was told that it was unhealthy.

"My daughter was told that she should only eat fruit and vegetables and there was such shame on her face, like she'd really done something terrible," Adams says.

"Kids go from just eating food and being in tune with their bodies, to being scared and feeling worried that they are doing something wrong. This is the breeding ground for an eating disorder."

Adams says that schools should not be delivering any health messages about food to children.  

"Kids are very black and white. Their capacity for nuance is not developed. If we tell them that something is good and something is bad, they believe that absolutely. Then they relate it to themselves, that they are then a good or bad person.'

"Maybe we as parents need some support and help with how to provide a variety of foods to our kids, but it's psychologically damaging and unnecessary to discuss it with children."

There is no doubt that the schools mean well and they are implementing their food policies with the best of intentions. But given that school food policies have not resulted in a reduction of childhood obesity and that eating disorders are skyrocketing, it's time for schools to examine if they are actually contributing to the problems they are trying to solve.

Kasey Edwards is a writer and best-selling author.

21 comments so far

  • ..... schools may unintentionally be damaging kids' relationship with food.


    Date and time
    March 03, 2015, 1:47PM
    • @Erik, can I ask why it's drivel? Given that schools' healthy food mandates have not, as the author pointed out, reduced the stats regarding childhood obesity or eating disorders in children and teens, obviously it's not helping.

      Date and time
      March 03, 2015, 3:49PM
  • And the most obscene part is when the "lunch box police" are often quite visibly overweight teachers. How do they justify that to their targets? Next it will be like Canada where a parent put the previous nights HEALTHY leftovers from dinner into the lunchbox. The child arrived home with a bill for supplying the child with appropriate nutrition one of the item being a water biscuit. In the USA, the tomato sauce on the "instant pizzas" is classed as a vegetable. Are we heading down that path?

    I have a lot of sympathy for teachers but how about they go back to their core role and actually TEACH the children so when they move up a class they can read, write (print) and do maths appropriate to the Grade they came from.

    Date and time
    March 03, 2015, 1:50PM
    • If this is what schools are doing I am not surprised that anorexia/bulimia is becoming more prevalent. What right does a school have to ban food from a child's lunch box? The only thing that they can restrict is nuts because of the adverse effects it has on some children, but donuts, biscuits etc. it is not the business of the school if children have these in their lunch boxes. No wonder the rates of children becoming anorexic or bulimic these days is climbing they are also becoming highly depressed and if the schools keep going the way they are there will be more episodes of this. Schools are there to teach and nurture not dictate what a child can and cannot eat, that is the parents' job..

      Date and time
      March 03, 2015, 1:55PM
      • It is so sad that you think children shouldn't be given extra guidance when their parents can't be bothered to parent properly. Sad sad world.

        Date and time
        March 03, 2015, 1:57PM
        • The Lunchbox Police are in our school also. My boy (grade 4) was told not to bring yoghurt to school. Yep. Yoghurt. NOT that it was unhealthy, nor was it dangerous to anyone, nor that it was wrapped in a container. Supposedly it disrupted the flow of 'brain food' time. Took too much time. Crazy time peeps. It's hard enough being a parent with all this nonsense .. imagine the kids.

          Mum of 2
          Date and time
          March 03, 2015, 2:01PM
          • I actually partially agree with these new policies, and this is why;

            My kids have very healthy lunches, and over the years, our kids have felt like they are missing out on what some of the other kids get in their lunch boxes.

            We explain that we will never send them with chocolate bars, chips, muffins, fruit juices, etc etc, becuase they are hi GI, will make them tired, after the sugar spike, will make them fat, will retard their learning ability and brain function.

            Huge amounts of research confirm this.(as does common sense)

            So, over the years, we have seen a dramatic shift in the contents of kids lunchboxes, and now the majority are healthy, rather than unhealthy, and our kids no longer feel like they are missing out.

            Treat food is for parties and occasional consumption. No every day. Unless of course, you dont care that you are damaging your kids.

            What I dont agree with is ostracising kids in front of the class and making them feel bad about the lunchboxes they bring to school. That is right up there with not letting kids go to the toilet during class. It happened only once at our school, and that policy lasted all of one day, and quickly removed.

            Back to the food, there is a good way and a bad way to change behaviour of school kids food habit, and it starts with healthy eating days, education about healthy food, and unhealthy food. Sometimes parents just need a note from the school with some simple lunchtime suggestions, to help them on the right path. Sometimes parents dont actually know, what they dont know.

            Viva the nanny state.

            Kam i Am
            Date and time
            March 03, 2015, 2:09PM
            • "As a parent, what goes into my child's lunch box should be my decision. It's based on our family values, my intimate knowledge of my child's current appetite, preferences, and wellbeing, our family budget, and what's in the cupboard."
              Totally agree. Schools have overstepped the mark here and should pull back from these policies.

              Date and time
              March 03, 2015, 2:12PM
              • Good on the schools at least they are trying to do the right thing. Stupid parents will tell you their overweight kid eats well. Even most thin kids are not saved by their parents feeding them sensibly but the fact they are fussy eaters.

                Probable time for the government to ban junk jood in supermarkets as parents don't seen to want to upset their precious by saying no either.

                Date and time
                March 03, 2015, 2:24PM
                • Great story Kasey. This unfortunately is the trend everywhere. Will employers now look at employees lunch boxes? A healthy worker is a happy worker! Do the schools keep up with current scientific knowledge on diet? Are guidelines detailed enough? or is it just subjective?

                  towering intellect
                  god like appearance
                  Date and time
                  March 03, 2015, 2:28PM

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