Elementary and middle school students whose lunch breaks are at least 25 minutes long are more likely to choose fruits and consume more of their entrees, milk, and vegetables, according to a new study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
For children from low-income households, school lunches can account for almost half of their daily caloric intake, so it is extremely important for schools to find ways to improve student selections and consumption and limit food waste.
The researchers found that when children have less than 20 minutes of seated time in the cafeteria to eat lunch, they were significantly less likely to select a fruit when compared to peers who had at least 25 minutes to eat lunch (44 percent vs 57 percent, respectively).
Furthermore, children with less than 20 minutes to eat lunch consumed 13 percent less of their entrees, 10 percent less of their milk, and 12 percent less of their veggies when compared to students who had at least 25 minutes to eat their lunch. These findings indicate that kids who were given less time at lunch may be missing out on key components of a healthy diet such as fiber-rich whole grains and calcium.
“Policies that improve the school food environment can have important public health implications in addressing the growing socioeconomic disparities in the prevalence of obesity and in improving the overall nutrient quality of children’s diets,” said lead investigator Juliana F. W. Cohen, Sc.D., Sc.M., of the Department of Health Sciences at Merrimack College in Massachusetts.
“This research suggests that enabling students to have sufficient time to eat their meals can help address this important issue.”
According to the study, another challenge children face is the minutes they must use during their school lunch period for activities besides eating or sitting. Many students spend a considerable amount of time traveling to the cafeteria and then waiting in line to get their lunch.
After taking this into account, some children had as little as 10 minutes to eat their lunch.
“Although not all schools will be able to accommodate longer lunch periods, several other factors have been cited as areas where schools can improve the amount of time students have to eat,” said Cohen. “Increasing the number of serving lines, more efficient cashiers, and/or an automated point of sale system can all lead to enhanced efficiency for students going through lunch lines.”
The findings demonstrate a definite link between the amount of time a student is given to eat and how much food they are likely to consume. A shorter lunch period means that children are in danger of missing out on important calories they rely on during the school day.
Furthermore, previous research has shown that consuming food too quickly is associated with a decrease in satiety, which can lead to overeating and contribute to obesity. Because of this, having insufficient time for lunch is especially risky as children are learning the eating habits they will take with them into adulthood.
“Policies that enable students to have at least 25 minutes of seated time might lead to improvements in students’ diets and decrease plate waste in school cafeterias,” concluded Cohen.
“These findings provide evidence that policies at the district, state, or national level may be warranted to ensure all children have sufficient time to eat their meals in schools.”