My Kids Don't Eat Lunch -- They Prefer To Graze All Day

I Gave Up On Lunchtime In Favor Of An Early-ish Dinner

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I ask, periodically.

“Do you want to eat lunch?” I’ll say. “No,” they’ll answer.  So I don’t stress about it. I let them keep playing or doing school. If one of them becomes obviously hangry, but still insists they don’t want to eat lunch, I insist they have a snack. A few rolls, some frozen blueberries, or some cheese cures the hangry. Then they return to playing. They usually have an early dinner.

They Don’t Eat Lunch… They Snack

I don’t force children to eat. Period. I’m not going to sit them at a table and glare until they eat a few bites and cry when their bodies say they aren’t hungry. There are a few reasons for that, but first, I think children, like adults, have the right to decide when and if they are hungry. I also think that, within reason, they have the right to decide what they’re eating.

So I stock the house with healthy snacks.

My children are late breakfasters…. because again, I don’t force children to eat food. I eventually will insist they consume something, but only when they clearly aren’t listening to their bodies. And I point that out: “Do you see the way you feel angry and irritable? Are you tired and mad? That happens when you don’t eat enough. Your blood sugar drops. Make yourself some peanut butter celery.” So when they eat breakfast late (ten o’clock or so), they don’t want to eat lunch at noon. But they may want a snack at noon, and that is fine.

I do not discourage snacking. I discourage mindless, “I’m going to sit down and snarf this entire bag of salt and vinegar chips, and no one will stop me” snacking. I do not discourage, “I think I’ll have a cup of dry Cheerios now,” my 8 year-old’s favorite. When my 6 year-old says he would like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which is kind of lunch, I tell him to make it himself, and help him if he needs help. My ten-year-old cooks himself nachos; they all retrieve bananas and frozen blueberries and other fruits at will.

No, my kids don’t eat lunch. They snack. I don’t restrict when they’re allowed to eat, so they sort of graze throughout the afternoon. It makes them happy and gives them a measure of freedom most kids don’t have.

They Learn to Listen to Their Bodies

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When you make a child eat “one more bite” or “join the clean plate club” or eat lunch when they aren’t hungry, you teach them that they shouldn’t listen to their body’s hunger cues. Instead, they should pay attention to some arbitrary rules imposed by society (eat at proscribed hours, always finish what’s on your plate, you have to eat a certain amount of foods).

This teaches children to ignore their bodies. And that comes with a whole host of issues. It teaches them that food isn’t just fuel, but that it’s tangled up in a bunch of weird societal rules they need to obey, many of which (“Clean your plate!”) can be unhealthy.

When My Kids Don’t Eat Lunch, I’m Careful About Snackage

Is it healthy for kids to scarf pastries all day? No. Would my kids scarf pastries all day? Hell yes.

We know that. So if I’m going to let them skip lunch, I keep the pastry snacking to a minimum. I keep the healthy snacks accessible and easy to find. I make myself available to prepare them if needed. But I’m usually not needed, because that’s the point. They want the autonomy to eat when they want to eat. If that means they don’t eat lunch, so be it.

But I’m careful not to label categories: there are no “bad foods” or “good foods.” I talk instead about what gives our bodies the best, healthiest, most long-lasting fuel for playing outside; the best food for keeping our brains sharp; and the most effective food for keeping us happiest the longest. Pastries are yummy, but eventually, the sugar rush wears off. Instead, have some peanut butter with something and milk. They may not eat a full meal for lunch, but they eat good food.

When My Kids Don’t Eat Lunch, I Save Time… But There Are Drawbacks

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Call me selfish. Call me lazy. Call me whatever you want. But when my kids spend the day grazing on oranges, granola bars, applesauce, and dried Cheerios, I don’t have to cook. This lack of lunch saves me time. It saves us all time. They don’t plop their butts down at a table and take half an hour to eat a few bites, wasting the rest.

But I do have to keep a closer eye on them when they don’t eat lunch. I have to monitor their water intake: it’s easier to get enough to drink when you’re sitting for proscribed mealtimes. So I’m constantly asking, “Where’s your cup? Have you drunk enough today?” I have to watch their behavior: are they acting out because they haven’t listen to their bodies and they’ve gotten hangry? In most cases, they’ve learned to recognize the signs—but they need a gentle reminder sometimes. Are they leaving bits of snackage around the house? My 8 year-old has a bad habit of filling up a cup with too many Cheerios and leaving what he doesn’t eat… somewhere.

But Our Life Works

My kids are happy making their own choices about food— and happy they aren’t tied to their brothers’ whims when it comes to lunch (or I’m happy I’m not making three different lunches). Even though they don’t eat lunch, they get enough to eat. My 6 year-old says he likes choosing his own food (like frozen blueberries). My 10 year-old says frankly that, “Lunch is a waste of time,” and my 8 year-old agreed (maybe because he couldn’t think of anything else, since he ran away immediately after replying).

It works for us. Sitting down to eat lunch may work for you and your kids. But for me and mine: they’re happier with a big breakfast, snackage, an earlier dinner, and dessert before bed. We go along with our kids’ preferences whenever we can, and this one gives them autonomy, helps them listen to their bodies, and still gets them the food they need. So we roll with it.

It works for the Broadbent kids, and they haven’t gone hungry yet. If mealtime is a constant battle in your house, maybe give our ways a try.