Is your child getting bullied about her lunch—or being the food police with other kids? Here's what you need to know.

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Empty school cafeteria
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As a parent, you've probably heard a lot about bullying and your child may have even experienced it firsthand. But bullying can happen in other places besides the playground and the classroom—it can also happen over food in the lunch room.

Bullying over food has probably existed since kids first started bringing lunch to school, but the time may be especially ripe for it now. After all, we're feeding our kids in many varied ways now, so the lunches in school cafeterias may look quite different from each another. Some kids eat all organic, others go gluten-free. Some are vegetarian, others do Paleo. Many children have allergies and sensitivities. There are lots of families who struggle financially and just do the best they can.

Food has also become a hot-button issue, and everyone seems to have an opinion. That rubs off on kids. If you rail against processed foods, your child may do the same to her classmate with a packaged lunch. Same goes for negative remarks about "health food". Even grown-ups can be food bullies with each other! I've heard adults say their coworkers or friends tease them for packing a healthy lunch--or on the flip side, for eating fast food.

When I asked the community on my Real Mom Nutrition Facebook page if their child had ever experienced bullying in the lunch room, here's a sampling of the stories I got:

  • "My daughter has often been teased in the lunchroom for bringing foods that, in her own words, "nobody has even heard of for kids' lunches" like hummus, boiled eggs, or brown rice. She said that the girls made fun of the eggs for being too stinky and wouldn't sit with her. She is now down to a very short list of what nobody says anything about and that I approve of."
  • "I was giving my son leftovers from dinner for lunch. But he wasn't eating any of his lunch for weeks and was asking for PBJ sandwiches everyday. He told me the other kids were questioning the meat that he ate and whether it came from an acceptable source. They said he was eating worms if I gave him noodles of any kind."
  • "My son, who is allergic to dairy and synthetic food dyes, was teased in kindergarten about what he was eating. I sent him letter shaped cookies because they are a safe treat for him, and he was told they were for babies. Although it had nothing to do with allergies, he perceived that it did. From that day forward, he took one baggie at a time out of his lunch box, hid it under the table, and put one piece of food in his mouth at a time, trying to hide what he was eating."

Here's what you can do about food bullying:

  • Don't Take it Lightly: Treat food bullying just as you would any other kind of bullying. Make sure your child's teacher knows about it and informs those in charge of the cafeteria. If your child is okay with it, go have lunch with him or her and get a feel for the environment.
  • Watch Your Language: Be sure you're not using disparaging words around food, like "toxic", "dangerous", or even just "bad" (read: Can We Please Stop Calling Food Toxic?).
  • Teach Kindness: At the beginning of the year, my son's kindergarten teacher read them a book called Yoko by Rosemary Wells. It tells the story of a cat named Yoko, who gets teased at school for bringing sushi –then befriends a classmate who is brave enough to try it (and like it). It has a great message of being kind, tolerant, and respectful of others. Model respect for different food choices among your own friends and family members. If you do overhear your child laughing about another chlid's "weird" food, take the opportunity to talk to him about it.

Has your child ever experienced food bullying?

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook Twitter Pinterest, and Instagram. She collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.