Last fortnight, I published a blog post title, Dietitian Mum Breaking School Rules Around Food to share my family’s story about food-shaming at school.
Due to the interest in our experience and some questions I had received from teachers asking how they can help students and parents when some students come to school with XYZ in their lunch-boxes, I decided to write this follow-up blog post.
I believe this concern over lunch-boxes is the reason we are hearing so many stories of food-shaming in schools.
Teacher’s often ask, “How do I help students and parents when some students come to school with XYZ in their lunch-boxes?”
This question is difficult to answer as each school, teacher, student and parent is different. I don’t see a one-size-fits-all approach or even a single strategy working in schools to address this concern/question.
Here are some of my thoughts on the question to add to the conversation around supporting students, families, teachers and schools to provide nutritious lunch-box choices and nutrition education.
1. Food Policies/ Education Programs
Cease food policies and nutrition education programs that create a dichotomy of food – i.e. “good”, “bad”, “healthy” and “unhealthy”. This use of language negatively affects relationships with food as seen in this letter to a school.
Cease food policies and nutrition education programs that pressure students to make food choices according to school expectations. This pressure to eat according to rules teaches kids to not trust and listen to their body, which can cause eating issues. 
Judging, pressuring and shaming food and eating choices in attempts to educate parents’ through their child is ineffective and are potentially harmful strategies.
2. Get Perspective on the Lunch-Box Situation
Your opinion of lunch-box situations is just that…your opinion only. Your opinion does not give you permission to police lunch-boxes or student’s dietary intake.
Is the student coming to school with XYZ some of the time, or is it every day? Is there other food in the lunch box or is it just the XYZ? Do you know what the student ate for breakfast, for an after-school snack, dinner and dessert?
Students are at school for 6 hours out of ~14 hours waking hours. That’s 2 meals out of on average 5 meals, or 40 percent of the dietary intake out of the whole day being at school.
We don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes in the student’s family household. And is it any of our business when the student is safe, loved and thriving?
What percentage of students bring only XYZ to school? There is always going to be a small minority where nutrition is not a priority (for a number of reasons mentioned below), but that does not mean that nutrition won’t one day become a priority.
I believe if we can remain free of judgement and maintain/create a safe space at school, parents will seek help when they are ready.
Whilst school education is important, parents have a greater role in educating their children about nutrition and life. It is not the responsibility of the school to take ownership of nutrition concerns and try and ‘fix’ them.
3. What is Your Job as a Teacher in Relation to Nutrition?
Are you a non-dieting Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) or university training nutritionist?
If not, assessing lunch boxes, providing dietary advice and attempting behaviour change is not within your scope of practise as a school teacher. Do you feel you are working within your scope of practise?
I interviewed two body-positive teachers about their perspective on what they thought the role the teacher is in relation to nutrition:
“It’s our job to teach our students about what good nutrition is according to the Australian Guidelines and what nutrition looks like in different culture. It’s not our role to comment on students’ food choices they bring to school. It’s our schools responsibility to make sure that our canteens are providing nutritious food choices.” Trudy Thompson, Teacher.
“I see the teacher’s role as the parent’s role. They need support the parents. Neutral conversations about food, no judgement. I’ll never forget my first lecture at uni where they talked about the teacher’s role as ‘loco parentis’. Kelly Fullerton, Teacher and Nutritionist.
“The term in loco parentis, Latin for “in the place of a parent” refers to the legal responsibility of a person or organisation to take on some of the functions and responsibilities of a parent.” Wikipedia.
4. Nutrition is a Complex Science
Feeding a child is complex. The process of behaviour change is also complex and difficult for most people.
Shaming parents for packing a lunch-box filled with XYZ and teaching/rewarding/punishing parents through their children is not going to change behaviour and will actually do more damage in the long-run.
Please remember, all food has the potential to nourish students and how students interact with food is more important than what they ate at a meal.
5. Factors That Influence Nutrition
Some parents struggle with providing a variety of food for a number of reasons. Feeding is affected by many factors.
- Medical (including allergies)
- A parent’s own history and values regarding food
- The needs of the student
Read this heartfelt letter from a child for a greater understanding of what factors can influence family food choices.
What Schools Can Do To Support Parents To Provide a Variety of Food:
Cease nutrition policies and education programs that create a dichotomy of food. This ‘black and white’ thinking can lead to dieting behaviours, which can lead to a number of adverse health effects including eating disorders. 
Take the focus off what parents are packing and what kids are eating. Let’s focus on food in general and why food is important, its different properties and how it makes us feel.
If you are genuinely concerned, please reach out to parents of the student’s lunch-box you are worried about and invite the parent to have a conversation with you. Chat privately about your concern regarding packing XYZ each day.
If a parent is interested in learning more about nutrition, how to support their child in feeding, encourage parents to reach out to a non-dieting APD.
Publish in the school newsletter food, eating and nutrition tips and ideas from a Non-Diet APD, and also list the nutrition professional’s services in the newsletter, for those parents and carers who are concerned about their child’s eating.
Invite non-dieting APD to conduct education sessions for parents and teachers.
What Schools Can Do To Support Students To Eat a Variety of Food:
Again, cease nutrition policies and education programs that create a dichotomy of food. These sorts of practises are not backed by science.
Intuitive eating-based policies and programs have positive impacts on eating attitudes and Intuitive Eating skills. 
Allow students to make food choices based on their appetite. Students should be given the choice of ‘how much’ to eat and ‘whether’ they eat. Parents and carers are responsible for ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’ the child eats. 
Support students to eat intuitively (reconnect with their internal body signals – their appetite). Talk about appetite. How appetite varies throughout the day, from day to day depending on the body’s needs, and encourage students to eat when they are hungry most of the time. Encourage students to stop eating when they are mostly comfortably full and choose foods in their lunch boxes that they feel like eating at the time.
Support students to appreciate and enjoy a wide variety of food without judgement.
Thank You Teachers
Thank you to the teachers/schools who are already doing the above strategies. You are making a huge difference to the lives of students. You will probably never really understand the magnitude of your influence you have on students.
Thank you teachers/schools for opening your minds and for your commitment to changing your school nutrition strategies that are unhelpful.
You are planting seeds that will help students grow into amazing, world-changing and healthy adults.
Take Away Message
At the end of the day, the parent is entitled to parent their own child and make decisions about what they pack in their child’s lunch-box.
If you are a parent who is experiencing food-shaming, you may find this note helpful:
“Dear [teacher’s name], Please don’t ask [child’s name] to eat more or different foods than she/he wants. Please let her eat as much as she wants of any of the foods I pack, in any order, even if she eats nothing or only dessert. If you have any questions or concerns, please call me at [phone number].” Thank you.” As seen on Scary Mommy website.
What ideas do you have around supporting parents and students around packing nutritious lunch boxes?
Want to improve you and your child’s relationship with food? Contact me for support, or download your copy of ‘Raising Kids Who Love Food and Their Bodies’.
 Bulik, C., Sullivan, P., Carter, F., Joyce, P. Initial Manifestations of Disordered Eating Behavior: Dieting Versus Binging. National Library of Medicine. The International Journal of Eating Disorders. 1997. 22.2: 195-201.
 Ellis, J., Galloway, A., Webb, R., Martz, D., Farrow, C. Recollections of Pressure to Eat During Childhood, But Not Picky Eating, Predict Young Adult Eating Behavior. Appetite. 2016. 1; 97:58-63.
 Healy, N., Joram, E., Matvienko, O., Woolf, S., Knesting, K. Impact of an Intuitive Eating Education Program on High School Students’ Eating Attitudes. 2014. Emerald Insight.
 Satter, E. Eating Competence: Nutrition Education with the Satter Eating Competence Model. 2007. Volume 39, Issue 5, Supplement, Pages S189–S194