Is Your School Dining Hall Making Disordered Eating Worse?
Picture the scene in some cheesy American high school movie.
Cut to a packed dining hall, where dozens of chirpy kids are queuing in anticipation for their ‘chips with everything’ meals, while discussing teen crushes and first dates.
Now come crashing out of that fantasy view, and let’s take a more ‘real’ look at the world of today’s dining hall and school canteen.
Reality is, not everyone loves that lunchtime drama.
For many of us, the idea of being in a crowded environment, trying to find a place to sit, encountering lots of noise and distraction – well, it’s hardly akin with a restful environment in which to eat and satisfy our hunger.
But add to that the troublesome world of eating disorders and, is it any wonder that we have plenty of young people finding it difficult to tackle their relationship with food on school territory?
If a child of school age is already experiencing eating disorder behaviours, the dining hall could quite easily become another frightening territory, which they’re going to try at any cost to avoid.
How swiftly that is ‘recognised’ by the school, however, will vary case by case.
Some schools are very vigilant about observing the dining practices of pupils – with the aid of staff, dinner ladies or other monitoring assistants – but in other environments, it’s simply down to that individual child to decide if they attend, if they don’t, what they select…and what they throw away.
While it’s not helpful to suggest we dictate a ‘one size fits all’ model in terms of how school dining should operate, there are indeed options and ideas which could be considered or adopted if appropriate, and in particular if it seemed necessary to aid the support of a person with an eating disorder.
Here are some of our thoughts on this important topic:
- Have the conversation. This may sound obvious, but too many schools avoid the chance to have a chat with the child about what may make their dining experience easier.
- Consider alternative venues. The sheer size and noise of a main canteen can make it really tricky for a young person – as we’ve discussed. Could you provide a smaller room, in which the child might feel more ‘able’ to dine, in the company of one or two peers and a pastoral representative?
- Timing matters. If someone is in recovery from an eating disorder, you’ll need to be aware that their hunger cues may be all over the place, and also that it may be helpful to allow them the opportunity to snack in between key school dining times.
- Is accompanied dining a useful approach? Some schools, particularly where they’re alert to an existing eating disorder in a youngster, may wish to allow a parent or elder sibling to accompany the pupil at lunchtime.
- Monitoring is important. While you may not be able to watch every moment of every pupil’s use of a school canteen, it can be helpful to be ‘alert’ as teaching and pastoral staff as to behaviours which are indicative of food avoidance or waste. Consider where and how bins are placed; encourage serving staff to raise concerns; allow dining support staff to receive training insight.
- Consider the menu, its variation and its portion sizes. Large portions sloppily served will put off even the most robust and competent eater. For someone with an eating disorder, it may be that smaller well presented portions will be the approach which engages an increased desire to partake in dining. Considerations should be made for items which are hot and cold, and for those which could be saved for snacks (many with eating disorder recovery will be looking to eat a minimum of three meals and three snacks during the day).
- Ask for input. Don’t be afraid to get extra nutritional guidance from specialists who have worked with those in recovery from an eating disorder. Therapists / dieticians in this field may welcome the opportunity to advise on menus and presentation approaches.
Now tell us what your school has implemented for you or your child?
Is there something that particularly worked?
We’d love to know your experiences of schools, colleges and universities who ‘got it right’, and those who could have done more.
We also provide dining audits, as part of our services, and offer accompanied dining sessions in schools. Contact us if you’d like to know more.
- Nov 2019