Boston, MA – A recent study found that in schools with short lunch periods, children eat less and throw away more food than in schools where they have more time to eat. Experts were interested in the subject as there are no national standards for school lunch period length and little is known about the effects the amount of time students have to eat may have on the school food selection and consumption.

For many children, the school lunch is the most important meal of the day. Most of them depend on their lunch for 1/3 to 1/2 of their daily nutritional intake.

Students at Lowell High School in Michigan sit down for lunch. Shorter lunch breaks mean that many kids don’t get enough time to eat and socialize.
Emily Zoladz/Landov

“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, adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard Chan School, assistant professor in the Department of Health Sciences at Merrimack College, and lead author of the recent study.

Eric Rimm, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard Chan School and the study’s senior author, added that, “Every school day the National School Lunch Program helps to feed over 30 million children in 100,000 schools across the US, yet little research has been done in this field.”

According to the research from Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, students with less than 20 minutes to eat school lunch consume significantly less entrées, milk, and vegetables than those who have a longer lunch break. The report was published on Friday in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

While federal guidelines improved the nutritional quality of school lunches, there are no regulations on the lunch period length. According to the School Nutrition Association, elementary school children get on average 25 minutes for lunch. Middle and high school students usually get 30 minutes.

The Study

In order to study the effects that lunch period length has on the student’s food choices and intake, researchers looked at 1,001 students from six elementary and middle schools. Their lunches periods ranged between 20 to 30 minutes in a low-income urban school district in Massachusetts, as part of the Modifying Eating and Lifestyles at School (MEALS) study. They proceeded to analyze the students’ food selection and consumption by examining what was left on their plates at the end of the lunch break.

Researchers found the following results: students with less than 20 minutes to eat lunch consumed 13% less entrées, 12% less of their vegetables and 10% less milk, than students who had at least 25 minutes, or more. Also, those 57% of students with less time to eat were significantly less likely to select a fruit. Finally, there was more food waste among students with less time to eat.

“During the school year, a substantial number of students had insufficient time to eat, which was associated with significantly decreased entrée, milk, and vegetable consumption compared with students who had more time to eat. School policies that encourage lunches with at least 25 minutes of seated time might reduce food waste and improve dietary intake,” the research concluded.

Source: Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics