How to navigate packed lunches and school healthy eating policies with a fussy eater

Have a fussy eater at home? We get all the tips for how to navigate school lunches

Two boys laugh while eating and playing with fruit from a lunch box
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Starting school, or going back after the long summer holidays, is a shock to the system for children and parents. Among the new classes, timetables, books and searching for the best school shoes, for some parents there's also the stress of packed lunches. Not something you might immediately think of when worrying about possible school issues, but believe me, they’re something that has reduced this mum – and her daughter – to tears over the years.

Packed lunches can be a total nightmare if you have a fussy eater, or indeed a child with autism or additional needs. Eating just isn’t the ‘easy’ process everybody else seems to think it is – and creating an acceptable packed lunch every single school day is not just a skill, it’s a feat of magic.

If you’re facing the stomach-lurching anxiety that packed lunches bring, then know you’re not alone. Try these tips for tackling common challenges to help make school lunchtimes better for your child.

Won’t eat ‘smelly’ food? Try wrapped cheese

This was one of my biggest bugbears – everything was deemed smelly by my daughter. Not just eggs and fish, but bananas, cheese, even yoghurt. I didn’t realise it at the time, but she was hypersensitive to food smells – an autistic trait. My way around this was to give her wrapped cheese, such as Babybel. This prevented any smell and she enjoyed peeling off the wax jacket. I also gave her cheese strings – I know they’re processed, but kids love peeling them and they’re individually wrapped too.

Summer temperatures and central heating in winter added to the problem as her school didn’t have fridges in which to store the kids’ lunchboxes. So try freezing tubes of yoghurt and fruit smoothies to keep their lunch cool and prevent food smells; they’ll defrost by lunchtime.

Pick at their packed lunch? Give it time

Parenting coach Isobel Mary Champion says it’s really common for children to leave their lunch at the start of term. “Often there are just too many distractions, or they are too anxious or self-conscious. Trust that things that will get better over time as they acclimatise to their new environment.”

Karen Brown, mum of two, says her daughter Hannah didn’t eat a lot at school. “I never stressed about it though because she ate at home and had snacks in her bag as well.”

Donna Burnett is a primary school teacher who works with SEN pupils and mum to two daughters. She says a lot of children just aren’t hungry at lunchtime. “Never make a big thing of it; they will eat when they’re hungry. If you start making it into a problem that’s when it becomes a problem.”

Child eating out of lunch box

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Give them choice

Let you child feel involved in the decisions surrounding their packed lunch and listen to their opinions. “Understand that it's okay for a child to dislike certain foods and encourage them to express their feelings about it,” says psychology expert and life coach Bayu Prihandito. “Conversations about food preferences can be a way of teaching children to articulate their emotions better, improving their emotional intelligence.”

Choice extends to general contents also. “I pack small amounts of many different things, in order to provide options,” reveals mum of two Zoe Diamond. “To be honest, it’s far more like a large snack box than a lunch box.”

Won’t eat fruit? Try puree

It’s nutritious, full of fibre and sweet, but some kids just won’t eat fruit. I’ve found that satsumas are great for splitting into segments and popping in a little pot, as are pitted cherries, grapes, blueberries and strawberries. If that doesn’t work, try fruit puree – the kind they get to suck out of the packet. You get a double whammy if you freeze it first, then let it defrost in their lunchbox during the morning – it’s like a healthy ice lolly.


Won’t eat sandwiches? Try a bento box

You could use cake cutters to create fun shapes – dogs, cats, teddy bears, smiley faces they’re all better than boring squares. “If your child likes cheese that has been cut into stars or sandwiches that have been cut into teddy bear shapes, go for it,” says Isobel. “But if not, don’t waste your time” (Or the crusts, for that matter.)

Mum of two Treena Renwick says her son isn’t keen on sandwiches. “I use bento boxes now – bits of fruit/sushi/chicken/chocolate buttons – there’s less waste and less packaging.”

Amazon Bento Box lunch box

(Image credit: Amazon)

Won’t drink water? Time for a new bottle

Make it more interesting by buying a snazzy water bottle in their favourite colour, with their favourite superhero or cartoon character pictured on the front, or personalised with their name. Bottles with central sections for fruit also add flavour and make water more interesting. 

Children's drinks bottles

(Image credit: Amazon)

Doesn’t like veggies? Try growing your own

Tomatoes, carrot and cucumber sticks are great options to include as they’re quite sweet and easy-to-eat – and if your kid has helped grow them, even better. “If a child associates positive experiences or fun activities with a specific food, they may be more willing to try it,” says Bayu. “For example, engaging in interactive activities that involve the food, such as growing their own veggies at home.”

Doesn’t like foods touching? Invest in a new lunchbox

This is known as brumotactillophobia and can be a characteristic displayed by autistic children, though all children can experience this to one degree or another. 

Lizzie Cameron is the founder of Scandibugs, home of the Yumbox. “We know from customer feedback that using a Yumbox with individual separate compartments is a game changer with this issue,” she says. “The silicone seal is moulded to the lid of the box meaning each compartment seals individually, and wet and dry foods can be packed alongside each other without touching.”

Scandibugs bento-style lunch box

(Image credit: Scandibugs)

Doesn’t like eating in front of other people? Let school know

Karen, who is a mental health nurse, says: “Stressing about your child not eating in front of classmates will only upset them and you. Perhaps speak to their teacher and SENCO (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator) about providing a private space to eat their lunch, or maybe they have a best friend they are comfortable eating with.”

“A lot of autistic children don’t like eating at school in front of people, they find it very difficult, it’s an ordeal. Some won’t go into the dinner hall because there’s too many people,” explains Donna. “We offer them a quiet place to eat their lunch – some prefer to stay in the classroom – with someone to supervise.”

Finally, try to remember not to take uneaten lunches personally. “Often the lunchroom environment is just really overwhelming, or your child might not want to miss out on playtime,” says Isobel. “How much or how little of their packed lunch your child eats is not a reflection of your success as a parent, or of their love for you”.

Looking for more back to school content? Try these easy packed lunch ideas or we tell you all you need to know when it comes to wrap around care

Lisa Burn

Lisa is a freelance journalist with more than 20 years of experience writing about lots of different subjects, including family health, beauty, interiors, and horses.