Lunch at 2pm, dinner at 5pm

Waking at 5.30am, late lunches and a culture of snacking – going to primary school involves changes for the whole family

When Saiful Iman Saiful Nor Mirza returns home from school at around 1.30pm, he does not have lunch.

Instead, the Primary 1 pupil has a snack such as cereal or a sandwich.

His mother, Ms Bernice Ng, 34, says: “It’s like a tea break. If he has a heavy lunch, he cannot eat his dinner, which is at 5pm.”

Like many other Primary 1 pupils who started school on Jan 2, seven year-old Saiful Iman has been adjusting to a new routine with drastically different timings for bedtime and meals, which might have shifted a couple of hours before or after their customary times.

Some observers question if such schedules for schoolchildren should be relooked as they are out of sync with traditional mealtimes, such as noon lunches and 7pm dinners, which adults tend to observe.

While some parents of Primary 1 children are concerned about their offspring’s later lunches, others are anxious about sacrificing time spent on family bonding, now that their children have to sleep much earlier than before.

But some parents are taking it in their stride.

Saiful Iman’s father, pilot Saiful Nor Mirza Abdul Samat, says: “It’s good that he has to manage his mealtimes and how much he eats. He knows, for instance, that if he doesn’t have breakfast, he would be hungry during recess.

“He’s adapting quite well,” says Mr Saiful Nor Mirza, 37, pointing to how Saiful Iman, the eldest of his three children, took the initiative to ask to go to bed earlier, at 8pm, instead of the usual 10pm. The boy now has to wake up at 5.30am to catch his school bus, which arrives at 6.20am.

As for mealtimes, he used to have lunch at 12.30pm when he was in kindergarten, but now he has a substantial meal at 9.30am during recess and a snack around noon on days when school ends later.

SNACKING IN SCHOOL

Official snack breaks, which typically last about 10 minutes, have been introduced in schools in recent years. Their timing is decided by the schools, and parents are advised to pack healthy snacks for the children.

  • Learning to cope with P1 

  • Adjustment to Primary 1 is a process that is not necessarily completed in days.

    Here are some tips for parents to help their children settle in well.

    START EARLY 

    Ms C. Amutha, a senior social worker at Singapore Indian Development Association’s Family Service Centre, says: “Adjustment is not going to be immediate and preparation starts in November and December. Primary schools and childcare centres arrange for orientation sessions that parents and children can take part in.

    “It is not only schedules that may change. The child has to sit still for longer and make friends and handle conflicts. Address the expectations of the child and adjust household routines to prepare him.

    “Children are usually resilient when it comes to adapting to a new environment.” 

    FOCUS ON THE DAY’S STRUCTURE 

    Ms Amutha says: “What is important is that the child has a routine in Primary 1, rather than a play-by-ear approach. Having a structured routine provides emotional security and comfort.” 

    KEEP THE CONVERSATION FLOWING 

    Ms Amutha suggests that parents, if they are at work, check in with their child via a phone call when he arrives home from school.

    “Spend time with your child so he shares his day with you, even though you face the pressure of time from having to go through his homework and school administration after a late day at work. This way, any issues can be identified early and you can pick up on any anxiety,” she says.

    “Talk to your child’s teachers. The schools are quite open when it comes to engaging with parents. Don’t wait till the parent-teacher conference.” 

    HAVE FAMILY MEALS 

    Mrs Esther Foong, an associate trainer with Focus on the Family Singapore, suggests scheduling time together as a family, such as at the playground. 

    “Express affection for your child and give her your full attention. Offer positive reinforcement when she has shown effort in keeping to her afternoon timetable, such as by completing work that you have assigned.” 

    Mrs Foong also recommends regular family meals to bond with your child.

    LOOK AT THE BIG PICTURE 

    Mrs Foong says: “There will definitely be occasions when more time is spent on revision than family time. Look at the week in its entirety. Weekends can be set aside for family and play time.”

    Venessa Lee

A Ministry of Education spokesman tells The Sunday Times: “Students benefit from having short and regular breaks in school to maintain energy levels and focus.

“Hence, since 2015, a snack break has become a regular feature in primary schools on top of a recess period.”

Some parents, whose children are new to Primary 1, say that preparing snacks day after day for their children can be challenging.

Ms Faith Ong, 38, whose elder son Judah is a Primary 1 pupil, says: “It was a headache deciding what to pack, which won’t turn bad four hours after preparation. I even contemplated buying a thermal snack box for him, but decided against it as it was too heavy.”

The curriculum specialist at Ngee Ann Polytechnic has so far packed snacks like meatballs and fruit for Judah. She is married to Mr Ho Boon Yeow, 39, who manages a hall of residence at the National University of Singapore. They have another son who is three years old.

Stay-at-home mother Toh Geok Kung, 39, packs snack boxes filled with attractive “food art” for her Primary 1 daughter and her son in Primary 3 to entice them to eat a variety of nutritious food during recess and snack time.

Posting her creations on @gastronomic. kid on Instagram, she makes fish fingers; energy-boosting balls of blended dates, nuts and raisins; pinwheel sandwiches laced with cheese and seaweed; and Star Wars characters from rice.

Having a packed snack box saves time for her children, who may want more time to play with their friends during recess, though they also buy canteen food sometimes.

“On days when I have no inspiration, I start looking around at other people’s Instagram. It’s an outlet of expression,” says Ms Toh, who is married to a 41-year-old lawyer. They also have a three-year-old son.

Senior dietitian Charlotte Lin, from the department of dietetics at National University Hospital, says the timing of meals may not matter much “as long as children are able to have three main meals daily, with two to three snacks, and they eat from all food groups”.

However, Singapore Management University sociologist Paulin Straughan moots the idea of lunches provided at school, instead of snack time and a later lunch at home.

“With school-based lunches, we have greater control over nutrition. With the school day longer than in the past, such lunches would take care of problems of inequality, for instance, where those from poor families may not have access to the nutritious meals that every child deserves,” says Professor Straughan.

She also advocates flexi-time at work for parents with young children. “As a society, we need to be cognisant of the fact that parents with young children need some support in the early years,” she says.

Ms Gracia Chiang, an editor in a Christian media organisation, recently got support from her boss to start and end work earlier, now that her elder daughter, Inez, is in Primary 1. She will be returning home an hour earlier than her usual 7.30pm to spend more time with Inez.

 
 

“She has to sleep by 9pm, an hour earlier, now that she’s in Primary 1 and there’s much less time with her with dinner, checking her schoolwork and her updating us on what happened that day,” says Ms Chiang, 34, who is married to a 37-year-old postgraduate student. The couple have another daughter, who is three.

Not all Primary 1 pupils experience drastic changes in their daily routines with the new school year, observers note. Some children who live close to their school may not experience much disruption, for instance.

Preparation, even before Primary 1 begins, is key. Attending an orientation session organised by their daughter Gyana Harshini’s school in November helped bus captain Ghana Sekar, 44, and housewife Rengasamy Santhi, 37.

“Both of us went for orientation, which taught us about topics like snack time and not preparing too much food, as well as the amount of pocket money to give Harshini,” says Mr Sekar.

However well-prepared one is, adjusting to Primary 1 can be a matter of “trial and error”, says Ms Vivien Low, who works in the education sector. Her Primary 1 child, Riley, has had to give up napping in the afternoon and he and his parents now have to wake at 5.45am so that he can catch his school bus at 6.15am.

 
 

“The whole family has to make changes,” says Ms Low, whose husband works in digital media. The couple, both 38, also have a four-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son.

Now that Riley has to go to bed at 8.30pm, instead of by 10pm like before, Ms Low encourages her younger children to “do quiet things” like jigsaw puzzles and reading, but the little ones cannot stay silent for long, she realises.

“Although there are a lot of challenges, we can’t control everything,” says Ms Low. “As first-time Primary 1 parents, it’s about knowing when to let go, when to guide the children and when to give them space. It’s a good opportunity to let them grow in a safe environment.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 12, 2020, with the headline 'Lunch at 2pm, dinner at 5pm'. Print Edition | Subscribe