Lunchtime at school

Lunchtime at school
How does lunchtime work at school?

Most kids have lunch at school instead of going home to eat. While every school does things a little differently, here’s some general information about how lunchtime works for kids in daycare.

Where do kids eat lunch at school?

When the bell rings at the end of the morning, many students stay in their classrooms for lunch. Others head to their lunchroom, accompanied by a staff member. Depending on the school, students may eat lunch in a room in the daycare, a cafeteria, a multi-purpose room, a gym, or a classroom.

That said, many daycares lack the facilities to accommodate students at lunchtime. In such cases, the daycare will make whatever arrangements it can with the school, though its lunchtime routine may still be impacted:

  • Students may not have access to sinks for cleaning up spills or filling their water bottles. However, an educator will still take them to wash their hands before eating. This time is factored into the lunch period to ensure students have enough time to eat.
  • Large groups of children may have to eat in one place, which can be noisy. Since the pandemic, however, many daycares have realized that classrooms offer a quieter environment and have started using them as lunchrooms when available, with the teacher’s approval.
  • Lunchtime may be divided into two or three periods. When this occurs, the schedules are arranged so that students have enough time to eat. If your child says they don’t have enough time to finish eating, don’t hesitate to talk to the daycare staff.

Where are lunch boxes stored?

At some schools, students bring their lunch boxes to class or leave them in their lockers. They might also hang them on hooks or store them on a shelf in the classroom or hallway. At other schools, kids can leave their lunch boxes in a refrigerator in the daycare centre.

Wash the inside of your child’s lunch box with hot soapy water every day. If it starts to smell, add a little baking soda to the dish water, then leave the lunch box open to air-dry.

If your child doesn’t have access to a refrigerator, place an ice pack or a frozen bottle of water in their lunch box to keep their food cold. Because cold air sinks, you should place the ice pack on top of the food rather than underneath it. Avoid leaving perishable foods at room temperature, as they could make your child sick.

A good lunch box will keep cold air in and warm air out. Zippered lunch boxes with insulated walls are an excellent option. A regular reusable bag won’t keep your child’s food cold enough, even with an ice pack.

Do children have access to a microwave?

Many daycares don’t have microwaves or have decided to remove them. This can be for a variety of reasons, including cost; maintenance; lack of time, staff, and space; limited electrical capacity; and risks to children’s health (use of plastic dishes that shouldn’t be microwaved and increased risk of allergen contamination).

In some schools, the daycare has a schedule for microwave use. That means that children can only use the microwave on their group’s assigned days.

Since microwave availability varies from school to school, check with your child’s daycare so you can plan accordingly. If you want your child to have a hot meal, you can always put their lunch in a thermos.

What happens at lunchtime?

At least one educator or lunch monitor will supervise each group of children. This person makes sure the kids behave and helps them open containers or wrappers and heat up their food as needed. They also help create a pleasant environment—for example, by chatting with the kids as they eat. However, since one adult can be responsible for up to 60 children, the level of supervision will be lower than it would be at a non-school daycare.

Students with thermoses or cold lunches can start eating whenever they’re ready. Children with meals that need to be reheated, on the other hand, will have to wait for their educator to put their food in the microwave. Depending on how many microwaves are available and how many meals need to be heated up, they might end up waiting a long time to eat.

During the lunch period, students eat and talk amongst themselves. To maintain a pleasant atmosphere, they need to follow rules such as using their inside voices or asking permission to get up. If the group gets too rowdy, the educator or lunch monitor may try different strategies to calm them down (e.g., soft music, dimmed lighting). However, not everyone agrees that these methods are effective.

Length of lunch periods

The length of lunch periods varies depending on a few different factors, such as how long it takes kids to eat. Children should have enough time to eat their fill, even if they’re slow eaters. However, they may have to put away their lunch box before they’re finished if the daycare’s lunch schedule is tight.

Division of responsibility at mealtimes

Daycare staff are encouraged to apply the principle of division of responsibility. This involves supporting parents in offering healthy foods to their children, without imposing restrictions on what foods students can bring to school. Another important aspect of their role is encouraging children to recognize and respect their hunger and satiety cues, without forcing them to eat or restricting their eating. In fact, the Association québécoise de la garde scolaire trains daycare staff in this area and develops information documents and tools for them.
For more information, read our article on food bans in schools (French only).

What to do if your child barely eats their lunch

If your child always comes home with most of their lunch untouched, ask them about it. Once you have a better idea of what’s preventing them from eating, you’ll be able to address the issue yourself or talk to the daycare staff.

Here are a few examples of what to ask:

  • Do you have enough time to eat?
  • Do you have trouble opening containers or wrappers?
  • Do you like what I pack for you?
  • Are you hungry at lunchtime?
  • Are you rushing through lunch so you can go play or do something else?
  • Do you get stressed because the lunchroom is too noisy or because you feel pressured to eat?

To encourage your child to eat at lunchtime, get them involved in packing their lunch. For example, you could let them pick a few of the items that will go in their lunch box every day. In doing so, you might discover that your child doesn’t like a certain food, that they think some foods smell funny, or that they have trouble opening a container or peeling a clementine.

Food services

In some schools, you can order and prepay for meals from a food service, such as a caterer. These services offer at least two meal options each day, including occasional vegetarian options.

Menus are prepared with regard for children’s tastes, the cost of ingredients, and cultural factors.

In general, menus align with the nutrition guide set by school service centres and school boards and are approved by a nutritionist. Many food services also work with nutritionists to ensure that the menus they develop are nutritious and balanced. Don’t hesitate to ask your child’s school if this is something they do.

Most food services make an effort to avoid using common allergens. Of course, if your child has food allergies, you should still make sure to check your food service’s ingredient list. They should be able to supply it.

Food service meals are especially convenient when you have too much on your plate. Provided they offer a good variety, they can also be a viable long-term option. Let your child help pick their meals so they’ll be more inclined to eat at lunchtime.

Food allergies

All daycares take food allergies (link in French) seriously and have measures in place to keep children safe. These include:

The decision by some schools to allow peanuts and nuts is based on scientific studies that have found that awareness, education, and prevention are more effective than food bans. However, the Ministère de l’Éducation has not issued any directives in this regard.
  • Informing students about food allergies and the importance of following the rules
  • Prohibiting children from trading or sharing food or utensils with each other
  • Reheating allergic children’s meals separately and before anyone else’s food in a thoroughly cleaned microwave
  • Prohibiting eating on school transportation

What’s more, peanuts, nuts, and foods that contain them are banned at many schools. Other foods may also be banned school-wide or only in groups where someone has a severe allergy (link in French). Since rules vary from school to school, check to see if there are any foods your child can’t pack for lunch.

These precautions are important, as children with allergies should be able to take part in meals just like everyone else. They should eat at the same table as the other children, not be isolated in their own corners. For example, if one child is eating something that another child is allergic to, the educator will make sure they aren’t sitting directly next to each other.

Things to keep in mind

  • Depending on the school, kids may eat lunch in the daycare, in a classroom, or in a gym.
  • During lunchtime, an educator is on hand to make sure everything runs smoothly and to help children as needed.
  • Many schools no longer have microwaves. If you want your child to have a hot meal, use a thermos or order a meal from the food service.
Naître et grandir

Research and copywriting: Stéphanie Côté, M.Sc., nutritionist
Web adaptation: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: August 2022

Photos: and GettyImages/monkeybusinessimages

Sources and references

Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.

  • Allergy Quebec.
  • Allergy Quebec. Guide to the Best Practices for Managing Food Allergies in Montreal Elementary Schools. 2020.
  • Association québécoise de la garde scolaire. “Alimentation.”
  • Association québécoise de la garde scolaire. “Outils en saine alimentation pour les parents.”
  • Institut national de santé publique du Québec. Portrait de l’environnement alimentaire dans les écoles primaires du Québec. 2012.
  • Satter, Ellyn. “Eating competence: Nutrition education with the Satter Eating Competence Model,” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, vol. 39, no. 5, September–October 2007, pp. 189–194.
  • Table québécoise sur la saine alimentation.

Books for parents

  • Côté, Stéphanie. Enfants, 21 jours de menus. Montreal, Éditions Modus Vivendi, “Savoir quoi manger” series, 2018, 207 pp.
  • Karmel, Annabel. Repas et boîtes à lunch pour enfants. Éditions Broquet, 2015, 184 pp.
  • Magnan, Mélanie. Boîte à lunch. Quebec City, Pratico Éditions, 2021, 224 pp.
  • Magnan, Mélanie. Boîte à lunch, tome 2. Quebec City, Pratico Éditions, 2022, 240 pp.
  • O’Gleman, Geneviève. Les lunchs. Montreal, Éditions de l’Homme, 2019, 256 pp.