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Have school lunch periods become cram sessions?

Written by: Anika Christ, RD, CISSN, CPT - Life Time Fitness

The length of the average school lunch period has drastically decreased over the last decade.  In America, we tend to put the pedal to the metal, always on the go and living as convenient a lifestyle as possible.  But when we skimp the allotted time for lunch and force our children to rush through this activity, are we negatively impacting their health?

Lunch timeline

It’s been estimated that the school lunch period has decreased by 10 minutes over the last 10 years (i).[i]  There could be multiple reasons, including school budget cuts, a lack of eating space and the increased demand for learning time. And there are no federal regulations regarding the length of time schools need to provide to students for lunch. 

So how long do school children get to eat lunch?  The average elementary school student gets about 20 minutes.  That 20 minutes isn’t just devoted to sitting down and eating, either. It includes washing hands, walking to the lunchroom, waiting in line, paying, eating, socializing and bussing the lunch tray. To put that into perspective, the average adult gets 30-60 minutes to do the same thing. Not only does it seem impossible to complete the tasks involved with getting food, but the rush encourages children to eat fast. 

Eating fast can exacerbate stomach issues and lead to overeating. Plus, it steers children away from their natural hunger and fullness cues. One study also showed that short lunch length increases a child’s body mass index (BMI) and probability of being overweight.[ii] Most nutrition professionals teach that it takes at least 20 minutes for the brain and stomach to communicate that the body is full.  When children don’t get more than 20 minutes to eat lunch, their focus on eating and satiety is lost, creating bad habits that can follow them into adulthood. 

Plate waste

Plate waste is a term that describes how much food was left on a lunch tray and tossed in the trash.  It is common for kids to be dismissed from the lunch table to bus their trays while still eating their entrée. Some continue to eat while they wait in line for the garbage. Plate waste is something school food service directors are always looking to decrease due to health and food budget concerns.  One study confirmed that the average plate waste at an elementary school was at least 40% of the meal. [iii]  Two important factors that can influence plate waste are the time allotted to eat and whether recess is placed before or after lunch. 

Some schools have already taken the initiative to have recess placed before lunch.  By doing this, kids aren’t rushing through lunch to get to recess and actually have built up hunger so they are more likely to sit down and eat more.  One study found that overall food waste decreased from 40.1% to 27.2% when recess was scheduled before lunch.  This shows that if students are preoccupied about going to recess, they do not eat as much of their lunch as they would if they had already participated in recess. 

When length of time to eat is increased, a decrease in plate waste is also shown.  One study found that food waste decreased from 43.5% to 27.2% when students had a thirty minute lunch period versus 20 minutes.  This thirty minute window allows for 20 minutes alone to eat and socialize at the table with plenty of extra time for traveling to the cafeteria and waiting in line. 

One last and important factor to look at here is quality of food.  Plate waste studies don’t necessarily look at what food is being thrown away.  If we think about it, students are rushing through their meals (because of shortened time to eat or anxiousness to get to recess), so the more processed foods are what goes down quicker to meet that demand.  Students may even go for the dessert first and not have enough time to eat the more nutrient dense entrée or fruit and vegetable.  The traditional school food options are very processed.  Processed foods are designed to go down fast, not fill you up and not necessarily be loaded with nutrients.  If schools are currently trying to increase food quality within their walls and offer more unprocessed, whole and natural foods, the current time allotment for lunch definitely won’t be long enough to chew a chicken breast versus chicken nuggets or eat an apple instead of applesauce.  Since it takes longer to eat whole foods versus their processed form, the length of time to eat definitely needs to be addressed. 

How much time is enough time?

One of the top factors associated with developing healthy eating habits is adequate time to eat.  Schools should analyze if their current time for lunch is long enough and start researching how they can increase if necessary.  If we consider the recommended time to spend eating is 20 minutes to maintain normal eating behavior and hunger and satiation cues, the lunch period should be at least 30 minutes to allot enough time for traveling to the cafeteria and waiting in line. This time allotment has been recommended among many studies addressing the issue.[iv] 

Parents should also find out when their child goes to recess and push for the option of recess before lunch to ensure an increase of nutrient intake for their child.  This gives children the opportunity to value the dining experience and really focus on eating. 

Children eat nearly 180 lunches a year in a school year; for many of them, it is their primary meal for the day. It’s critical that they get as much mileage they can from the meal. For all children, these also represent 180 opportunities to practice good eating behaviors to repeat throughout their lives. 

Post thoughts and comments below.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

[i] Hall, Andy.  School Lunch Breaks Squeezed.  Wisconsin State Journal.  2011.

[ii] Bhatt, Rachana.  The Impact of School Lunch Length on Children’s Health.  Georgia State University.  October 2010. 

[iii] Bergman, Ethan, et al.  Relationships of Meal and Recess Schedules to Plate Waste in Elementary Schools.  NFSMI.  No. 24, 2004.  

[iv] Conklin, Martha, et al.  How Long Does It Take Students to Eat Lunch?  The Journal of Child Nutrition & Management.   Issue I, Spring 2002.

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