Why is your teenager not eating lunch at school? Learn the common reasons for food disinterest, poor eating and why teen eating can get off track in the high school years.
Last year, we moved to a new town and my teens started a new high school.
Our normal lunch routine changed.
Gone were the cute lunch boxes. The thermos.
And the ability to access a microwave.
The willingness to eat yogurt, or take a salad disappeared.
And to make things worse? My teenagers refused to take an insulated lunch box.
Instead, they wanted to buy their lunch, just like their friends. So we tried that approach.
Teenagers Not Eating Enough
Many of you know, my kids played sports in high school.
I had a swimmer, volleyball player, and rower.
My swimmer was eating a salad with chicken every day, but getting bored and not finishing it.
Then she added a gigantic chocolate chip cookie to her lunch tray.
For someone preparing for a two-hour swim practice after school, she was underfueling.
It was easy to see why she had a headache, was grumpy and wiped out after practice.
Nope, not working.
My volleyball player was in the same boat, but forgetting to get a drink, or not having enough time to do so.
She was dragging at practice and dehydrated.
None of this was good for them.
So we transitioned back to bringing lunch to school, and I honored all the limiting requests.
Teen Eating: How It Went
My teens wanted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
I added a fruit, a veggie, whole grain crackers or chips, and a cheese stick or round.
Mostly, they didn’t eat it, complaining that I had packed too much food for them to eat during the lunch hour.
After a month of peanut butter and jelly, they complained about that, too.
Aside from my frustration, I had to step back and put my professional hat on.
What was really going on here? Of course, it wasn’t just one thing, but a multitude of factors, including my own frame of mind.
The Reasons Why Teens Cut Down on Eating
There’s a lot that can be going on here. Let’s look at some of the reasons why a teenager is not eating enough at school.
From pressure to keep up with peers to attempts at weight loss, many reasons are rooted in the developmental phase of adolescence.
1. Pressure from Peers
Young teens want to be like their friends—wearing the same clothing styles, hairdo, and yes, eating the same foods for lunch.
It’s not until they are older (16 or 17 and up) that they become more interested in being unique, different, and take pride in doing their own thing.
In our case, my kids were buying lunch from the cafeteria, and if they were bringing lunch to school, it was in an inconspicuous brown paper bag.
My girls didn’t want to stand out from the rest.
2. Socializing with Friends
Lunch is a social time for seeing friends, and being seen.
Especially when you’re in class all day, and those classes may not be with your friends.
There isn’t a lot of time, or focus, spent on eating.
In fact, I know my girls eat during their study break (a sandwich) and tend to eat their sides at lunchtime in the cafeteria.
They want to eat quickly so they can get down to the business of chatting and socializing.
3. Food Preferences are Changing
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches don’t really work on a regular basis anymore.
Yet, extravagant foods in multiple, colorful containers aren’t their thing either (believe me, I wish it were!).
We’ve moved to efficiency, taste, eye-appeal and peer-appropriateness as the new lunch packing criteria.
Tastes and food preferences are expanding as the teen’s world opens up. A good thing!
And another step along the way to adulthood.
4. Teen Development
Like infants, toddlers and kids, teens are always changing and there are different reasons for their wants and desires.
I could continue to do things the way I’ve always done them, but the truth is, their changes necessitated me to change too.
If I didn’t, they’d probably adopt some undesirable behavior in response, like tossing out the lunch I packed, eating friends’ lunches, buying lunch on the sly, or worse, not eating at all.
5. Body Dissatisfaction
Some teens stop eating because they’re unhappy with the way they look.
In an attempt to lose weight or change their shape, some teens will restrict their eating, or diet.
If you’re concerned about your teen’s eating, please check out my eating disorders series, starting with Part 1: Eating Disorders: The Facts and Stats or my Eating Disorder Guidebook, helping you understand the variations and what to do if you suspect your child is struggling.
What You Can Do if Your Teenager’s Not Eating at School
This year, my teens and I sat down and discussed the criteria for bringing lunch.
We’re returning to our once a week school lunch purchase policy, and I will be packing lunch the rest of the week.
Here’s what my teens want:
Sandwiches with lots of veggies (wraps and “different kinds of bread”), fruit and water.
All in a paper bag.
Here’s a strategy to keep nutritious lunches on board:
Variety is the name of the game!
- Vary the protein source, including deli meats, nut butters, hummus and other bean spreads, eggs, and cheeses.
- Load sandwiches with veggies and send a healthy portion of fruit, that way they can snack on any leftovers throughout the day if they are hungry.
- Invest in some cool water bottles and sending plenty. Try to freeze them.
- Experiment with different breads: Wraps, hoagies, French, rye, baguette, etc.
- Send in an after-school snack for sports practices after school. Some ideas I have are these tasty and “real food” KIND bars (high in protein and carbohydrates); nuts and dried fruit; apples and nut butter pack; or some other protein/carbohydrate combination.
- Don’t forget fruits and veggies! Lunchtime is a great time to add them in.
Need More Help Feeding Your Teen?
Check out my parent nutrition education website, The Nourished Child, where you can find nutrition booklets, workshops and online classes.
Be sure to check out The Eating Disorder Guide – it will help you identify problematic eating behaviors early!
Originally published in August 2013 | Updated in December 2020.