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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Should Students Be Allowed to Eat in Class? Here’s What Teachers Have to Say

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 23, 2023 10 min read
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The new question-of-the-week is:

What are your recommendations for how teachers should handle students eating in class?

Our students often seem like they are always hungry—some due to their families’ economic conditions, some because they got up too late to eat breakfast, and some because their growing bodies just need to eat a lot.

I’m a high school teacher and always have crackers and other nonsugary snacks in my cupboard. My students know if they are really hungry, they can always get something from there and eat it inside or outside the classroom, depending on the time and the weather. My food’s availability has hardly ever been abused.

Also, except during most of the last school year when our district had a mask mandate, I’ve always explained to students that eating in class can be distracting. However, I also tell students that if we are working in small groups, and if they are able to focus and not make a mess, that they can eat their own snacks during that time. This rule has seemed to work well.

Today, let’s hear how four other educators handle the “eating in class” question.

Michael Pershan, Deborah Offner, Ashley Kearney, and Vivian Micolta Simmons have contributed responses.

No, With Exceptions

Michael Pershan is a math teacher and writer in N.Y.C. He is the author of the book Teaching Math With Examples:

I tell students—from 3rd to 12th grades—that they can’t eat in my class. I explain it’s because they need their hands for writing. If they protest, I shrug and explain that it’s a school rule.

I’m actually not totally sure if it is a rule at my school, but I think it should be. I have learned that there is no such thing as silent eating. Food is generally crunchy, slimy, or sticky, and often, it’s two out of the three. And, like in the children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, it’s never just the food. If you let a student eat a granola bar, they’re going to ask to get a drink. If they get a drink, they’ll spill it on the desk. To clean up the spill, they’ll need a paper towel. But if there are no towels in the bathroom. …

So, yes, I am an annoying hardliner about eating in class.

And yet, even as I write this, I can’t help but think of all the times I’ve made exceptions to this rule. At summer school, when the train was delayed and the program was providing breakfast, which the student missed. Last year, when a serious and conscientious high school senior asked if she could finish her lunch in the first few minutes of my calculus class. And the many times when a homeroom teacher hands a 3rd grader a pretzel rod right before my math lesson.

When I ask students to put their snacks away, I sometimes encourage them to put it on my desk, which both removes the item while keeping it visible, reassuring them that the food hasn’t gone anywhere, and they’ll get it back eventually. I tell students to take one last bite, and often, then they sneak in a second one, which I’ll pretend not to see.

Teaching is I think often like this. We need to have reasonable rules and clear standards so we can focus on learning while avoiding endless haggling and negotiation about our expectations. At the same time, we are dealing with children, and a certain amount of compassion and flexibility is called for.

Some educators may let students eat in class, seeing it as a case where flexibility should take precedence over the learning environment. But I say that “no food” is a valuable rule to have and enforce, as much as we reasonably can.


Yes, ‘Within Certain Parameters’

Deborah Offner is a clinical psychologist and former dean of students who has worked in schools and colleges for 25 years. She is the author of Educators as First Responders: A Teacher’s Guide to Adolescent Development and Mental Health, Grades 6-12:

At the end of my first lecture of the semester, a college student approached me sheepishly.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m not sure if you noticed that I was eating during class. ... I had field hockey practice right before, and this was the first chance I had to eat.”

“I didn’t notice, actually,” I said, “and it’s totally fine.” Of course you must have been hungry after your practice. Not a problem!”

My student’s intuitive regard for the formality of our classroom environment was one of the things that distinguished her from the middle school students with whom I’d spent that morning. And the first time her snack came to my attention—or, I suspect, anyone else’s—was when she announced it to me. In a class of 40 students, a 19-year-old’s stealthy protein bar consumption doesn’t hit a professor’s radar. Of course, a 4th grader scarfing down a yogurt parfait during math—yogurt dribbling onto their desk, granola spilling onto the floor—is another story.

Despite the potential for both distraction and mess, students may need to eat in your classroom for a variety of reasons, most importantly, because hungry students can’t concentrate on learning! Some students skip breakfast at home and/or at schools where it’s offered due to tight morning schedules or not having an appetite first thing in the morning. Many fewer students miss lunch, though this happens, too. Finally, growing children and teenagers often need nutritional “reinforcements” between meals because, as most teachers and parents know, some of them are simply hungry all the time! My general advice is that eating in the classroom should be allowed, within certain parameters, and with plenty of paper towels and trash cans nearby.

Here are some guidelines for handling student eating in your classroom. Like most issues, they vary according to grade level.

For younger students (5th grade and below) establish a classroomwide snack time. This is more important in the morning, though you may want to add an afternoon snack time, depending on the time span between lunchtime and the end of the school day. Taking time (10-15 minutes) to eat together ensures that students have the opportunity to eat if they’re hungry. It allows you to manage noise and mess collectively, directing students to dispose of trash and clean off their desks all at once. And a bonus is built-in social, movement, and relaxation time that allows students to recharge between lessons.

It’s optimal (though by no means guaranteed) that your school provides classroom snacks, for equity’s sake, as some students’ families don’t have consistent or reliable access to food. If you are not able to provide snacks, have students bring them from home. If your classroom budget allows, you can also offer parents the option of purchasing snacks you order in bulk, rather than sending their own food. The upside of this add-on is that if a subset of parents report it would be a financial hardship for them to provide a snack, you can “comp” their children’s food without distinguishing them from those who are able to pay.

For older students (6th grade and above), consider allowing students to eat at their own initiative during class, as long as they adhere to specific guidelines and stipulations. These include the following:

Eating is allowed as long as it’s not overly messy, noisy, or disruptive, and students clean up! Place more than one trash can in the room so it’s easy for students to dispose of waste. Insist that eating does not distract the student or their classmates.

Remember, older students should be able to engage in a contract of sorts regarding a privilege that’s important to them. If one of them strays, the pressure of the group will bring them back on board. The agreement is simple: If they want the freedoms of my college student, they must aspire to act more like her!


‘An Opportunity to Build Relationships’

Ashley Kearney is an award-winning educator focusing on systemic changes that can support the whole child:

There are various reasons why a student may eat in class. Assuming there is not a school rule, which may need to be examined if it exists, teachers can use students’ frequent need to eat in their class as an opportunity to build relationships while also educating one another.

I taught all boys at one point, and one of the best things that I could do, taking allergies into consideration, was set up a PB&J and water table. Students would remind me about the grocery store run or bring bread to restock. There were certain times it was appropriate to get a snack and water that didn’t require asking me and doing so during natural pauses within the broader structures of the class and honoring the time necessary for tasks. This was in high school where mutual understanding and strong relationships were built. I’d argue that it helped to form deeper relationships of trust and respect with some students.

Set up a snack bar and use it as an opportunity to practice community norms. Learn about the different foods from different cultures represented in the class, nutritious foods, or even just the impact of certain foods on the brain. My view is that everything does not have to be seen as a problem. Instead, it might be an opportunity.


‘Designate a Snack Time’

Vivian Micolta Simmons was born in Colombia and has been in the United States for seven years. She has been a teacher for 14 years and is currently working as a ESL/DLI lead teacher for the Iredell-Statesville schools in North Carolina:

Honestly, I have never had an issue with students eating in class as long as we set a time for it. I get it; I have gotten hungry at random times during the day and I will be against prohibiting a student from eating in class.

Think about our students coming from Central and South America. In Colombia, our schedule for instruction time ran from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Right at 10 a.m., we would stop for a recess (eat a snack and play), then go from 10:30 a.m. to12:30 p.m., stop for lunch, and then end our academic day.

It was a shock for me when I first got to the U.S.A. and I had to teach straight from 7:00 until 11 or 12, with no snack break in between. Or other times where my lunchtime will fall right at 10:30 a.m. (I was not ready for lunch at that time.)

As long as we designate a snack time in class (no matter the age of the students) and we are aware of possible allergies among our group of students, I see no problem with students eating in class. I want to eat, too!


Thanks to Michael, Deborah, Ashley, and Vivian for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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