Improve the experience of school lunch for children with vision impairment

Post date: 
Monday, 14 September 2015
Children eating  lunch

How can schools make eating lunch enjoyable for children with vision impairment? Radhika Holmström reports.

For some children with vision impairment, the lunch break can be extremely challenging – a noisy canteen, lack of direction, unidentified food added bewilderingly to their plates and confusion about what’s on offer and finding somewhere to sit. So what action can schools take to turn lunchtime into a pleasant experience? 

Knowledge is power

The first thing is to learn the route to the lunch counter or the packed lunch trolley and then to a regular place to sit. Route learning can be learned in advance – but in practice, the bustle of the real lunch break means that at least at the beginning, many children with vision impairment need some support from an adult helper or volunteer buddy. Remember that it’s not practical for children who use a long cane to carry a tray safely at the same time. 

What’s on the menu?

Next children need to know what they’re going to be eating. Schools can certainly produce a braille, large print menu or audio menu using the menu from a catering company. However it is also helpful if the staff serving the food explain what the choices are, and what is still left.
“Ideally, kitchen staff should be included in the staff training about visual impairment,” says Gwynneth Evans, Senior Habilitation Officer at Bradford’s Visual Impairment Team. 

What’s on my plate?

She recommends the “clock face” method for letting children know what is on their plate. “For instance, put meat at six o’clock, potatoes at noon and vegetables at nine and three – and then tell them where it is. I have given advice in kitchens where I’ve given a diagram of a plate and it certainly has helped. Even a very young child who doesn’t know the time, will know top and bottom and left and right. That certainly helps them locate the food on their plate and they’re more comfortable with eating.” 
A lot of students with visual impairment also use their fingers to guide them on the plate – so it’s important that sauces like gravy and custard go in a particular place every time so that children know where they are.   
Kitchen staff can also make a huge difference by encouraging children who are reluctant to try new foods – clearly this can be an even bigger hurdle for children to try something they cannot see. “My team works work in a school where the head of the kitchen team offers taster pots to a very fussy eater with visual impairment, so that he can give a little go to something with an unfamiliar smell and texture,” says Hilary Unwin, qualified teacher of visual impaired learners who manages the Visual Impairment Team at Bedford Borough Council.

From support to independence

Both Evans and Unwin explain that it’s crucial to strike a balance between support and empowerment. Even children who need an adult helper with them all the time, or the ones who eat lunch in a separate room with their friends for a few weeks before they’re ready to brave the noisier lunch hall, shouldn’t be separated off permanently. 
“Even if they’re supported, they need to learn how to collect their knives and forks at the beginning and scrape their leftovers into the bin and clear their plates away afterwards, because otherwise they’re less empowered,” Evans points out. 
Yet at the same time, Unwin adds, “You don’t want a child to be still sitting there when all their sighted friends have gone, because they’re still struggling with opening a drinks carton. It’s all an issue of getting the balance between what’s appropriate for another person to do, and what you expect them to do for themselves.” 
And ultimately, she says, “When it gets to lunchtime, children are hungry, often grumpy and quite tired: by lunchtime they just want to get in there and get their food. It’s really important to help them do that, so that they can then go off and spend time with their friends.” 

5 ways to make lunch time pleasant

  • Teach the route to the serving counter or packed lunches
  • Describe choices, what’s on their plate and where
  • Support children to find seats with friends
  • Teach children to collect and use cutlery and clear away
  • Work with the child’s habilitation specialist and family to achieve  age appropriate table manners – it’s ok to remind children that talking with your mouthful is unpleasant for others.


Your local visual impairment service can put you in touch with a habilitation specialist who can support a child with important independence and social skills.  
You can also find a list of habilitation specialists on the Habilitation UK website.

Have your say?

Do you find something else works well at your school? Share your practical solutions with other readers. 
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