Moms are being lunchbox-shamed — why experts say that’s not OK

Moms have been shamed over the lunches they pack for their kids. (Photo: Getty Images)
Moms have been shamed over the lunches they pack for their kids. (Photo: Getty Images)

Last week, a mom in Kingwood, Texas, left a little something special in her 5-year-old son’s lunchbox as he headed to daycare: a note asking workers at Rocking Horse Day Care to tell the boy she loved and missed him. But, as local news outlet KTRK reports, one of the boy’s carers — who has since been fired — instead scrawled a nasty response telling her to “put him on a diet and go away."

While the fat-shaming note was reportedly left in the lunchbox by mistake, the Texas woman, identified only as Francesca, is certainly not the first mother to be scolded over what food her child brings to school or daycare. Some of the lunch-shaming instances have even made the news, from the Colorado mom who was called out for sending her 4-year-old to school with Oreos — “Lunchables, chips, fruit snacks and peanut butter are not considered to be a healthy snack,” the school warned in a letter sent home with the child, who was denied the cookies — to the Australian mother whose post about her child’s school’s crackdown on “unacceptable” raisins went viral in 2017. This summer, another Australian woman spoke out after her daughter’s teacher lectured her for including cookies in a lunchbox packed with fruit, veggies and meatballs.

Instagram and Pinterest are teeming with lunchbox-ready recipes and strategies to transform picky eaters into pint-sized gourmands, but a number of factors can make that easier said than done. Taking into account nutrition, dietary restrictions, budgets and bans on certain allergens, the pressure to provide a meal that a child might actually eat can be intense, says Lindsay Powers, a Yahoo contributor and author of the forthcoming book, You Can’t F*ck Up Your Kids: A Judgment-Free Guide to Stress-Free Parenting, out next March.

“There are so many factors when it comes to feeding our kids every day: At lunch, we want to make sure they’ll actually have something they’ll eat so they have enough energy to play and learn, but there are also so many restrictions with things like peanut butter being banned from classrooms,” Powers tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Not to mention that food can get expensive, especially if you’re buying lots of fruits and veggies and organic packaged foods you know your kids just aren’t eating. So often times, parents rely on feeding their kids meals they know work.”

Powers says that it’s unfair to judge a child’s overall nutrition based on one meal.

“Each individual meal may not always be perfectly healthy or perfectly balanced, but when you look at what a kid eats over the course of a week, everything balances out,” she says, adding that criticism over the contents of a lunchbox can affect how a child views food.

Parents are under pressure to prepare healthy lunches. (Photo: Getty Creative stock image)
Parents are under pressure to prepare healthy lunches. (Photo: Getty Creative stock image)

“We’re giving our kids food issues by shaming them over each individual meal — especially when they’re 5 years old!” Powers says. “Food is so loaded in our culture. Cake is good when we eat it at a birthday party, but bad when we eat it at home. We’re ‘being good’ when we eat healthy and ‘being bad’ when we indulge in candy. Kids don’t understand this nuance — they just think they’re good or bad people depending on what they eat. If our goals are to raise adventurous eaters with a healthy attitude toward food, shaming them over one meal flies in the face of that!”

Virginia Sole-Smith, author of The Eating Instinct and co-host of the “Comfort Food” podcast, agrees.

“Lunch is complicated,” Sole-Smith tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Kids’ appetites are tough to predict because they change often with activity level and growth fluctuations. And lunch can be a pretty stressful meal — you’re in the cafeteria, it’s loud and crowded, it’s almost always too short and kids are easily distracted. For those reasons alone, it’s totally reasonable for parents to want to pack the ‘easy’ foods they know their kids will like so the food part of the meal isn’t an added stressor. Add on food allergies, sensory challenges, the family’s grocery budget and how much time they even have available to pack lunch and all the more reason why tossing in some Oreos or goldfish crackers is an affordable, easy way to give your kid a good lunch that will comfort and nourish them.”

Sole-Smith says lunchbox-shaming — which she says unfairly targets moms — does more harm than good.

“Nutrition-policing kids’ lunchboxes doesn’t make kids eat better,” she says. “It just embarrasses the child and the family getting singled out. We have lots of research to show that shaming or pressuring kids to eat in certain ways backfires heavily.”

She adds: “We shouldn’t be grading parents on how much/how little/how ‘well’ a child eats.”

Parenting experts tell Yahoo Lifestyle that shaming a kid's lunchbox can have a negative impact. (Photo: Getty Creative stock image)
Parenting experts tell Yahoo Lifestyle that shaming a kid's lunchbox can have a negative impact. (Photo: Getty Creative stock image)

While Sole-Smith doesn’t think it’s a teacher’s place to oversee a child’s diet, there are more tactful and positive ways to address what may be an ongoing issue.

“If a teacher is really concerned about a child’s lunchbox, he or she should never mention it to the child or send a note home,” she suggests. “Call the parent and voice your concerns respectfully — and frame them as questions; maybe, ‘I worry Susie isn’t eating enough lunch to fuel her for the afternoon. Do you think it would work to send bigger portions?’ Or ‘I wonder if there’s a fruit Joey likes that would be easy to add to his lunchbox to round things out?’

“Really, though — I don’t think teachers should be weighing in on nutrition,” Sole-Smith adds. “They have plenty to do already and they don’t have the training for this; if parents are worried about how to pack a healthy lunch their child will eat, they can ask their pediatrician for a referral to a family dietitian. But in most cases, parents know plenty about how to balance nutrition goals with the food their kids will actually eat — and we should trust them to do what works for them!”

Ultimately, parents should focus on passing muster with the biggest critic of them all: a picky child.

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