ARFID and the school dining room
16 year-old Ruby shares what the school dining room was like for her growing up with ARFID.
This week, 1st - 7th of March 2021, is EATING DISORDER AWARENESS WEEK, so it seemed fitting that we share the personal account of 16 year-old Ruby, an ARFID Warrior, in the hopes of providing some insight into what something as 'simple' as school lunch times can mean for someone with ARFID.
"The school dining room should be a place to enjoy food with friends, however someone like me would rather do maths (and I hate maths). I have always struggled in the dining room since starting school at age 4. I remember being in Reception and crying in the dining room because I was so overwhelmed by the smells and sounds. Once, a teacher took me out of the dining room to eat lunch alone in the quiet. I can truly say that’s the best school lunch experience I have ever had.
Eventually, around Year 2, I was able to sit in the dining room more comfortably. Despite this, I found other food people were eating in front of me physically repulsive and that’s something that’s still the same for me today.
Fast forward another year I decided to try school dinners like all my friends. In other words, I traded my delicious Pom bear crisps and slices of plain white bread (without crusts), for a disgusting plate of vegetables which I couldn’t touch. All I wanted to do was move onto the dessert and go outside. Of course this was not possible, as the dinner ladies told me unless I ate the main course, I was not allowed to move onto the dessert or go outside. So guess what happened? I sat in there all lunch until I was the only child left. When lunch ended, I went back to class hungry.
Out of all my memories in the primary school dining room, the one that is the most vivid was in Year 6. I was quietly eating my packed lunch (still Pom bears and slices of plain white bread) when a dinner lady came up and looked in my lunch box and saw I didn’t have a sandwich. I have never eaten a sandwich and this was something that I was always anxious about because it is one of the packed lunch classics that I simply didn’t and couldn’t eat. Anyway, she became increasingly angry and shouted “why do you not have a sandwich?!” in front of the entire school. I was so embarrassed and this only made me more anxious. When I’d finally plucked up the courage to answer her I just said
“ because I don’t want one”. I didn’t know what else to say.
When I started high school I have to say everything slowly got easier (probably due to the fact that dinner staff aren’t patrolling your every move), but I do remember on the introduction day, a free lunch was provided to each student and it did not specify what it would be so I just stuck with my packed lunch. It turned out I was the only student on packed lunch that day which I felt very awkward about and was so relieved when my friends joined me at the table. I have to say that this feeling of awkwardness came from myself, no one else seemed to bother that much so that definitely made me feel more at ease.
After a bumpy start I haven’t massively struggled in the high school dining room (mainly because I ate my packed lunch outside everyday). But occasionally on a Friday I would have a school lunch as it was pizza and chips which I could eat. I actually ate this with no problems which I was really proud of. However, this was the only meal I could eat in the canteen and there were multiple occasions where the only thing left was fish fingers, so I had to awkwardly leave the queue and go hungry for the rest of the day. Due to this, I eventually stopped going and enjoyed my packed lunch instead.
My best piece of advice is that honesty really is the best policy.
Throughout my time at primary and early years of secondary I have lied many times about why I haven’t tried or eaten a certain food and this has only caused further problems that are even more difficult to answer than the original question. I’ve found that people in general are a lot more accepting than you think. Being honest helps those around you understand you better and can help you avoid more uncomfortable situations. This does take practice and confidence which is something that I am still developing myself. I do now find it a lot easier to assert myself. I think it’s really important not to be ashamed of what you eat despite what other people may say. As long as you are eating things that you feel comfortable with, that is perfectly fine. I am starting college this year and continuing on my journey to feel more confident talking about my eating and being be more flexible and expand the range of foods I can eat.
I hope that ARFID awareness UK will help to raise awareness amongst education staff who are such key people within a young person’s daily life and can hugely impact on their self-esteem and confidence particularly around food. As I did not have a diagnosis as a young child (as ARFID was not recognised), it was difficult for staff to understand my difficulties despite my parents trying to tell them and I was often dismissed as a ‘fussy eater’. This made me feel like a spoilt child and something that I was choosing to do. If staff had had even a small amount of understanding regarding my eating difficulties this would have made such a difference to my school life."
- Ruby age 16