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Cutting short lunch time in school may lead to obesity

Posted by on Aug. 19, 2011 at 9:15 AM
  • 9 Replies

School districts across the country are revamping their menus to serve healthier fare, but most schools give students so little time to eat that they could be contributing unwittingly to the childhood obesity problem

Healthy food can take longer to eat, and research shows that wolfing down a meal in a hurry often means people eat more.

A new national survey by the School Nutrition Association shows elementary kids have about 25 minutes for lunch; middle school and high school students about 30 minutes. That includes the time students need to go to the restroom, wash their hands, walk to the cafeteria and stand in line for their meals.

Many students may have only about 10 to 15 minutes left to eat their meals, school nutrition directors say. But students should have at least 20 minutes to eat their lunch, the government recommends.

"It's a problem in a lot of districts. There's not a lot of time to get their food, sit down and eat their fill," says Helen Phillips, president of the School Nutrition Association, and senior director of school nutrition for Norfolk (Va.) Public Schools.

Advice for parents:

Food service workers try to make it easy for kids to eat healthful foods. Parents can do the same when packing their lunches, they say.

For instance, Helen Phillips, senior director of school nutrition for Norfolk (Va.) Public Schools says her staff uses packaged fresh produce, such as baby carrots, apple slices, grapes and pineapple spears, so if a child runs out of time to eat the food at lunch, they can take the food with them in their backpack and eat them on their way home, at snack time or between classes, if the school allows that.

She recommends that parents cut most fruits and vegetables into small bite-size pieces for elementary children. "Elementary kids are often missing their front teeth and can't easily bite into an apple or peach."

Sometimes kids this age have a hard time manipulating the straws into their juice or milk boxes so it may be easier for them if parents choose a reusable containers with a pullup spout, she says.

Many students feel rushed, says Deborah Taylor, director of the Shawnee (Okla.) School Nutrition Services.

The typical length of the lunch has been about the same since 2009, but it's shorter than in 2003 when kids got up to five more minutes. Children in some countries, such as France, get as long as one to two hours to eat lunch.

U.S. research shows that when people eat quickly, they consume more calories, enjoy the meal less and feel hungrier an hour later .

This lunch-period dilemma comes at a time when about a third of children and adolescents - 25 million kids - are obese or overweight, government statistics show.

Almost 32 million kids eat the school lunch every day, and more than 11 million eat the breakfast served there. Overall, kids consume about 30% to 50% of their calories in the school meal programs.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set new nutrition standards for all food served in schools, from lunchrooms to vending machines.

Those standards are being developed now, but in the meantime, the school food service directors have already made lots of improvements, Phillips says. The new survey of 1,294 school nutrition directors from the School Nutrition Association found that most schools are offering fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, salad bars or entree salads, and fat-free and 1% milk.

But those kinds of foods often take more time to eat, Phillips says. "It takes more time to chew a whole apple than applesauce. Eating an entree salad takes longer than eating a cheeseburger or chicken nuggets, because of the crunching and chewing of the raw vegetables."

Sometimes kids eat their favorite foods first, and if they run out of time, those vegetables may land in the trash, she says.

Children who bring their lunch would typically have a little more time to eat because they don't have to stand in line to get their meal, she says. Whether or not it's enough time depends on the child and the length of the period. "The younger elementary kids tend to eat slowly."

The pressure of all the different academic demands affects the lunch schedules, Phillips says, so food service directors work with principals to make sure lunch hours are staggered so everyone is served quickly.

Many factors come into play when determining lunch periods, including building size, the number of serving lines, the seating in the cafeteria and the number of students coming to the cafeteria at any given time, she says.

Taylor adds: "I don't know if there is a perfect answer. Every building is different, every principal is different."

When people look back on the childhood obesity epidemic in this country and wonder how it spiraled out of control, they may blame the way kids were rushed to eat too fast, not just at school but at home, Taylor says.

"I think we have diminished the joy of sitting down and enjoying a meal. Now, the attitude is we should sit down and eat and get it over with."

by on Aug. 19, 2011 at 9:15 AM
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Replies (1-9):
by on Aug. 19, 2011 at 9:21 AM

I know that my boys get 30 minutes for lunch.  I also know that they go to recess right after, and if a child has not had enough time to eat, then they can stay and finish, with the teachers assistant staying with them.  

I try to get my kids to not rush when they eat.  My husband makes that really hard.  He had to eat fast at school, and has never gotten out of the habit.  I never had to eat fast at school.  

by Bronze Member on Aug. 19, 2011 at 9:30 AM

I know that my sons school only has a short time to eat, I do feel bad or the kids for it.

by on Aug. 19, 2011 at 9:51 AM

Makes me wonder how long my son's lunch is. I'll have to ask at his orientation that's coming up.

by Bronze Member on Aug. 19, 2011 at 9:54 AM
Parents want longer lunches, more recess, more gym and less homework yet are demanding better scores and educational outputs of China and Japan.
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by on Aug. 19, 2011 at 9:58 AM

I know here they have for some a good amount of time. Sometimes kids take longer to eat ..

My daughter 16 and one son 6 take their time. They try to hurry but they end up getting sick if they eat to fast.. All lunches here are 15-20 mins long and that is standing in a lunch line, getting milk, and finding a place to sit with people that wont make fun of you..

As for my 12 yr old he eats fast... and he isn't obese neither are my other 2 kids.. anyway he has no problem finishing his lunch on time ..

by on Aug. 20, 2011 at 9:07 AM

more school work and less play time does not mean better test scores.  It actually does the opposite.  Kids need to rejuvenate their minds in order for them to work more efficiently. 

Quoting fatcat0908:

Parents want longer lunches, more recess, more gym and less homework yet are demanding better scores and educational outputs of China and Japan.

by on Aug. 20, 2011 at 9:09 AM

I would like to add eating a lot of healthy food does not make kids obese.  It is called by eating lots of unhealthy junk food and not getting hardly any exercise.  Exercise is the biggest problem for obese kids in my book.  Kids are not getting enough.

by on Aug. 20, 2011 at 9:43 AM

My oldest dd is in private school and she has about 20-25 minutes for lunch. I pack hers, but I do that for cost as a lunch at her school is over $3. She typically takes a ham and cheese sandwich on whole wheat, an organic fruit strip for her snack, a bottle of water, fruit, sometimes carrots, sometimes chips or crackers. 


by on Aug. 20, 2011 at 10:29 AM
Ours have 30 minutes total & that includes 15 min. of recess. If they're not finished they HAVE to go outside anyway. It sucks.

I'm actually a super fast eater & it's really hard to make myself slow down - I attribute it to school lunches as a student and then as a teacher for 13 years - that's a total of 26 of my 39 years spent wolfing down lunch.
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