Want Kids to Eat Healthier School Lunches? Give Them Time

A study links short school lunch periods to low consumption of fruits and vegetables.
(Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters)
Sep 13, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Many kids would likely argue that their lunch periods are too short. While the precious breaks from classwork are used to relax and chat with friends, students also need to scarf down a full meal to fuel them through the rest of the day.

But, confirming what millions of parents who unpack their children's lunch boxes every day already know, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has found that kids need more than a few minutes to consume those needed nutrients.

Longer lunch periods correlate with students eating healthier lunches, researchers found. The study compared food choices and consumption with the amount of time students are given to eat. Students with less than 20 minutes for lunch ate less across the board—including fewer nutritional fruits and veggies.

Nationwide, the average lunch period is about 30 minutes, according to a 2014 report from the School Nutrition Association. But researchers found that the amount of time available to eat can get cut down to less than 10 minutes because of long lunch lines.

Researchers reviewed 1,001 students from six elementary and middle schools in low-income neighborhoods in Massachusetts that had lunch periods of between 20 and 30 minutes. Students with less than 20 minutes to eat consumed 13 percent less of their entrées, 12 percent less of their vegetables, and 10 percent less of their milk compared with students who had at least 25 minutes for lunch. Students with shorter lunch periods were less likely to even select a fruit in the lunch line: 44 percent of kids with 20-minute periods picked up an apple or orange, as opposed to 57 percent of children with longer lunch times.

More than 30 million children—half of all public school children nationwide, a record, according to the Southern Education Foundation—eat low-cost or free lunches every day through the National School Lunch program. With the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, school lunches have seen an overhaul in their nutritional guidelines, with an increase in whole grains, low-fat options, and fruits and vegetables. But if the kids don’t have time to eat those healthy options, it’s all for naught. (The industry that provides the lunches is now lobbying Congress to whittle down those rules.)

“Many children, especially those from low-income families, rely on school meals for up to half their daily energy intake, so it is essential that we give students a sufficient amount of time to eat their lunches,” Juliana Cohen, the study’s lead author and an adjunct assistant professor at Harvard, said in a statement.

While lengthening lunch periods and cutting into class time may not be a viable option for many schools whose funding is tied to results of high-stakes standardized tests, researchers suggest streamlining lunch lines so that students can make the most of the time they have.