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My son’s a slow eater and isn’t given time to finish his school lunch

The question

My son attends public elementary school. During lunch hour, they eat quickly (very quickly) and are then sent out into the playground, with the doors locked until the afternoon bell rings. My son does not eat fast enough and often returns home with uneaten food. Why don't schools allow students free access to the building during the school day?

The answer

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Generally, elementary schools give kids about 20 to 25 minutes to eat their lunch in a supervised environment, and then it's off to the playground for physical activity. "A school's priority is to ensure kids finish their lunch – a full tummy is a requirement for good learning," said Kurt Heinrich, spokesman for the the Vancouver School Board. Sure, your child may have a couple of bites, but as long as they receive a nutritious breakfast and dinner, what's the worry?

For reasons that have to do with supervision and student safety, principals prefer outdoor recesses. You would not want your Grade 1 child wandering around empty classrooms and hallways while his friends are playing outside, would you? If you're concerned about uneaten meals, or if your child has special requirements, elementary schools are generally accommodating. Mr. Heinrich, as well as school-board spokespeople in Toronto and Halifax, say that schools often have indoor work areas, where kids who are slower eaters or who are working on projects can do so in a supervised setting. Or perhaps it's just a matter of letting the principal know that little Liam or Sophie is a slow eater, and may need more time.

Keep in mind, though, that for most children, lunch is a time to socialize, free of watchful adults. And it's also a time to burn off energy built up from sitting in a classroom all morning. Eating lunch is sometimes secondary. Growing up in India, I often looked enviously at the other children attending my elementary school when they devoured their delivered hot tiffin lunches of curry, chapatis and some spicy vegetables and meat, as I reluctantly chomped down on my sandwich. There was never any pressure to finish it in the allotted lunchroom time: They sampled as much as they wanted, and then dashed out to play in the yard.

Granted you might not have the luxury of a personal lunch-delivery service, but there are lessons to be learned from my youth. There's something to be said about giving children some variety in their lunchbox. Mix it up a little: finger-foods one day, a chicken wrap with avocado the next. Just remember: Instead of a snack, they can always finish off the leftovers when they get home.

The Guidance Counsellor is a column that answers reader questions on navigating the education system. Send your questions to

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About the Author
Education Reporter

Caroline Alphonso is an education reporter for The Globe and Mail. More


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