Do kids get enough time to eat lunch?

28 Aug

Two Minnesota sixth-graders Talia Bradley and Antonia Ritter are who are at Seward Montessori School wrote an interesting article for the Star Tribune. In Sixth graders: Give us time to eat at school, Bradley and Ritter argue:

In the Minneapolis public schools, we are supposed to have 15 minutes to eat, which would be bad enough. But realistically we get only 10 to 11 minutes (we have been timing it).

Having to rush to eat is part of the reason for the obesity epidemic, eating disorders, indigestion and kids not doing well in school. There is research that proves all of these points. Kids just need more time to eat at school.

Rushing to eat high-calorie meals at school, or at home, is the cause for the gastroesophageal reflux. This is often called heartburn. Heartburn feels bad — the symptoms are burning in the chest, overall chest pain, burning in the throat, difficulty swallowing, food sticking in middle of the chest or throat, sore throat and cough.

School-age children especially need nutrition, but we are the ones who don’t get a choice about how long we get to eat. We are growing and have to get energy. In middle school especially, our bodies need energy, because middle-school kids are going through puberty. It is essential that we get enough time.

Younger kids, meanwhile, tend to eat much more slowly. That means they eat less in the time allotted and behave poorly for the rest of the day.

When about a third of American children and adolescents are overweight or obese, the schools shouldn’t be adding to the problem. But they are, perhaps unknowingly. Research shows that eating fast causes people to consume more calories and enjoy the meal less.

There are also problems with kids being underweight. Those children just use lunch to talk, instead of having time to eat and talk.

Lunch is an important social time. Teachers always tell us to socialize at lunch and recess, not in the classroom. But we cannot do that if we are scarfing down our lunches in 11 minutes.

And at recess nobody can socialize or run around if they are hungry or we feel sick. Lots of kids stay in classrooms during lunch so they have time to actually eat and socialize.

Pretty soon nobody will be going to the lunchroom or recess. We don’t have time to eat there; by staying in our teachers’ classrooms, we do.

The Minneapolis public schools apparently have a district rule against eating outside — this was told to us by our lunch and recess lady. She said it was because we would litter.

Our friends helped us come up with multiple ways of being able to eat outside. We could set up tarps by the field or in an unpopulated area with the same trash systems as in the lunchroom (fall and spring).

Another idea is have one teacher or staff member stay in the lunchroom with kids who need to finish eating, so they can stay in and finish (winter)….

Almost no one finishes what he or she gets to eat. That means a lot gets thrown away, wasting food. Food waste affects many things in our world. It wastes much more than food; it wastes the time and energy it takes to make the food product. That is a sign that we are hurting our planet.

The reasons for having longer lunch times are obvious when you think about them. Weight, indigestion, waste and everything else just shows how inefficient and hurtful our lack of time is. We need change.

Given the amount that must be packed into the school day, it is no surprise that the lunch period often get short shrift.

The Journal of Child Nutrition and Management published the 2002 study, How Long Does it Take Students to Eat Lunch? A Summary of Three Studies by Martha T. Conklin, PhD, RD; Laurel G. Lambert, PhD, RD, LD; and Janet B. Anderson, MS, RD:


How long did it take K-12 students to eat? School children took an average of 7 to 10 minutes to consume their lunch. Some students, however, required less time, while others needed more. Sanchez, Hoover, Sanchez, et al. (1999) reported that 39%, 27%, and 20% of students in elementary, middle, and high schools, respectively, took longer than 10 minutes to consume their lunch. We suggest school foodservice directors read the research articles generated by these studies to consider the entire spectrum of data collected (Bergman et al., 2000; Sanchez, Hoover, Sanchez, et al., 1999). In school districts where the scheduled lunch period is a contested issue, the only way school foodservice directors could know precisely whether this average reflects students in their program is to conduct a time study using similar methods. The procedures to follow for conducting such a time study have been published (Sanchez, Hoover, Cater, et al., 1999).

Eating time encompasses only the physical act of eating and drinking. This time did not seem to relate to the age of students, size of the school district, complexity of the menu, length of the lunch period, serving styles, holding students at the table, or scheduling recess prior to the meal period (Table 1). An earlier study found that the timing of recess was associated with reduced plate waste, particularly with boys, when physical activities were scheduled prior to lunch (Getlinger, Laughlin, Bell, Akre, & Arjmandi, 1996). As shown in Figure 1, the researchers found that in one elementary school (EUT1) that scheduled recess prior to lunch, the averaged the same amount of time to eat. Because the time studies did not record plate waste, we can only assume students may have eaten more in the same amount of time, or the timing of recess may not have made a difference in consumption patterns with this group of elementary students.

Non-eating or socializing at the table was the most variable time among the schools, and not surprisingly, the amount of time spent in these activities seemed to change directly with the length of the lunch period. These acts included arranging the tray or food, eating, talking, laughing, and other types of social interaction with friends at the table. School foodservice directors could minimize the time used by students in arranging the food for eating by evaluating the manner in which condiments are packaged for ease of use. This would be especially important for elementary students (Sanchez, Hoover, Sanchez, et al., 1999).

Socializing is an important aspect of dining because allowing students sufficient time to relate to others provides a break in routine and refreshes them for afternoon classes. This may be the reason why members of the Partnership to Promote Healthy Eating in Schools mentioned the importance of enjoying meals with friends as a vital component of healthy eating (American Academy of Family Physicians et al., 2000). Perhaps if students were given at least a 20-minute period at the table, as recommended by food and nutrition professionals (USDA, 2000), both eating and socializing activities could be accommodated for the average individual.

If 20 minutes at the table were the goal, then school foodservice directors would need to factor in the following: average travel time to the cafeteria; time for service, including travel to the eating area; and bussing of trays after the meal to yield an ideal lunch period. The service aspect is the one element a school foodservice director can most directly influence. In this research, the bussing of trays consistently averaged under one minute, even for elementary students, but the average service time per student varied from approximately three minutes to slightly over eight minutes (Figure 1). Among the factors that positively influence service time are:

  • the number of serving lines;
  • whether all food choices are available on each line;
  • training of service staff and cashiers to provide efficient service;
  • the designation of a “runner” to replenish food on the line (Nettles & Conklin, 1996); and
    an automated point of sales system.

School foodservice directors should carefully review each of these areas to determine whether service efficiency could be improved, especially if doing so will enable students to enjoy their lunch for at least 20 minutes at the table.

If 20 minutes at the table represents 78% of the meal period (Figure 2), a goal for the entire time students spend in the cafeteria would be at least 26 minutes. This would allow four minutes for travel to and from the cafeteria in a 30-minute lunch period. Although this calculation is based strictly on averages, a school foodservice director could use this type of logic in documenting an ideal lunch period with school administrators.

Bradley and Ritter are arguing that shorter lunch times do not feed the need of the “whole child.”

Moi wrote in The ‘whole child’ approach to education:

ASCD is promoting the Whole Child Initiative:

Explore resources and opportunities for action here and on, and together we’ll change the face of education policy and practice. Find sets of indicators related to each tenet below. Taken together across all five tenets and the central necessities of collaboration, coordination, and integration, these indicators may serve as a needs assessment, set of strategic goals and outcomes, framework for decision making, or the definition of what a whole child approach to education truly requires. Download the indicators (PDF).

Whole Child Tenets

  • Each student enters school healthy and learns about and practices a healthy lifestyle.

  • Each student learns in an environment that is physically and emotionally safe for students and adults.

  • Each student is actively engaged in learning and is connected to the school and broader community.

  • Each student has access to personalized learning and is supported by qualified, caring adults.

  • Each student is challenged academically and prepared for success in college or further study and for employment and participation in a global environment.

In order to ensure that ALL children have a basic education, we must take a comprehensive approach to learning.

A healthy child in a healthy family who attends a healthy school in a healthy neighborhood ©


School dinner programs: Trying to reduce the number of hungry children                                               

School lunches: The political hot potato

The government that money buys: School lunch cave in by Congress                                                  

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©


11 Responses to “Do kids get enough time to eat lunch?”


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    […] Moi wrote about the limited amount of time some students get to eat lunch in Do kids get enough time to eat lunch? Given the amount that must be packed into the school day, it is no surprise that the lunch period often get short shrift. […]

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    […] to Dr. Wilder, In the Minneapolis public schools, we are supposed to have 15 minutes to eat, which would be bad […]

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    […] Do kids get enough time to eat lunch?                                               […]

  11. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study: More time for school lunches equals healthier choices for kids | drwilda - October 1, 2015

    […] must be packed into the school day, it is no surprise that the lunch period often get short shrift. Eric Westervelt of NPR reported in the story, These Days, School Lunch Hours Are More Like 15 […]

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