News You Can Use: Study Finds Kids Eat Healthier When They Have More Time for Lunch

By Dawn Van Osdell

A new study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that getting elementary and middle school-age kids to choose and consume a healthier school lunch may be as simple as giving them at least 25 minutes to eat it.

The Modifying Eating and Lifestyles at School study (MEALS), conducted by the nonprofit organization Project Bread and the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, examined “plate waste”—the food kids toss in the trash, considered the gold standard for determining what kids actually eat—to find the link between the length of a school lunch period and the food choices and intake of students. It discovered that kids who have 20 minutes or fewer to eat their lunch—not including the time they spend walking to the cafeteria and standing in line to get their food— are missing out on the key components of a healthy, balanced diet that are essential for growing bodies and minds.

Compared to peers who are given at least 25 minutes to eat, kids who are forced to eat and run are eating less of their entrée, consuming fewer veggies, drinking less milk, and are significantly less likely to add a fruit to their tray. Although it has repercussions for all children, the missed nutrition is especially important for the more than 30 million students in our country who receive a free or discounted school lunch, as their school lunch can account for almost half the calories they consume in a day.

Additionally, the short lunch period contributes to the formation of unhealthy eating habits that can stick around for a lifetime, such as consuming food too quickly, which can set the stage for overeating and contribute to obesity. 

It’s disturbing news, but there seems to be an easy enough fix. Although not all schools will be able to create longer lunch periods, Juliana F. W. Cohen, one of the investigator’s in the study and an assistant professor at Merrimack College, says there are several ways schools can maximize the time kids have to eat: increase the number of serving lines, train cashiers to be more efficient, and provide an automated point-of-sale system for quicker checkouts.

“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,” she says. “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.”

Talk to your school officials to learn how you can help influence policies that may be the difference between a full belly and a hungry one, which can make all the difference in the world.

Photograph by Orange Acid via Compfight