Lunchtime and recess are often described by children everywhere as their favorite “subjects” in school, and by far their favorite time of day. Indeed the importance of a nourishing meal, the physical outlet, and the opportunity to socialize are all critical needs for children. It seems that students who are provided a longer seated time period to enjoy lunch may also be enjoying some additional health perks.
Apples, broccoli, and carrots may not exactly be the first menu items on young students’ minds when they sit down for lunch each school day, but a new study suggests a novel way to encourage healthier eating among today’s youth. Researchers at the University of Illinois report that extending lunch time makes kids more likely to eat fruits and vegetables.
“Ten minutes of seated lunch time or less is quite common. Scheduled lunch time may be longer, but students have to wait in line to get their food. And sometimes lunch periods are shared with recess. This means the amount of time children actually have to eat their meals is much less than the scheduled time,” says Melissa Pflugh Prescott, assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.
A research team decided to compare 10 and 20 minute lunch sessions, where the students were seated during lunch time. The results proved to be significant regarding the consumption of fruit and vegetables during the longer seated lunch periods.
“During shorter lunch periods, children ate significantly less of the fruit and vegetable parts of their meal, while there was no significant difference in the amount of beverages or entrees they consumed. It makes sense that you might eat the part of the meal you look forward to first, and if there’s enough time left you might go towards the other parts. But if there’s not enough time those items suffer, and they tend to be fruits and vegetables,” Prescott explains.
Perhaps even more importantly, the comparison studies have found that the opportunity for longer seated lunch periods are far more relevant for students coming from low-income families that may not be able to afford bringing their own lunch to school each day. They then are required to wait in long lines to get their meal, leaving much less time to actually sit down and enjoy their meal with adequate time to eat.
More time for fruit consumption
A study was conducted during a summer camp being held on the campus of the University of Illinois, involving both middle school and elementary school aged children.The campus area was set up to appear like a normal school cafeteria, and the meals followed the preparation guidelines of the National School Lunch Program.
“We tried to make this as comparable to everyday school as possible. We worked with the local school district and used the same food distributors as they did, and we selected the menu items based on the local public school menu,” Prescott comments.
The study team designated some days as “long lunch” days, and others were designated as “short lunch” days, however the menu remained the same to eliminate the possibility of different food choices. Photos were taken of each student’s food trays, observing any sharing of food, interactions among peers, and phone use. Upon finishing, each student filled out a short, two question survey asking about the taste and appearance of their meal. Overall, more fruit was eaten than vegetables. Additionally, consumption of both fruits and vegetables increased dramatically during the longer lunch times.
Building social skills at lunch
“In my opinion, one of the best things about the new nutrition standards (2010’s Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act) is that they require a variety of vegetables be served each week, to ensure children from all income and resource levels get exposed to different healthy foods they might not have access to at home. But if we have lunch periods that are too short to allow children the opportunity to get used to those foods, then we’re almost setting the policies up to fail,” Prescott says.
“A main takeaway from our study is that children need protected time to eat their fruits and vegetables. Our findings support policies that require at least 20 minutes of seated lunch time at school,” she adds.
Additional benefits beyond healthier eating
“The amount of seated time children have is also a really valuable time for them to connect with their peers; they might have limited opportunities to do so throughout the school day. We found significantly fewer social interactions during the 10-minute lunch times. That indicates other positive outcomes may come from longer lunch breaks as well,” Prescott concludes.
Children across the globe have had to deal with a multitude of changes regarding school this past nearly two years, such as learning about social distancing and not being able to visit and enjoy recess with their friends and peers. Let’s hope these new findings continue to support the value of extended meal time for children, before some good ol’ recess fun!
Written by Sherri Abergel
- Effects of Longer Seated Lunch Time on Food Consumption and Waste in Elementary and Middle School–age Children: A Randomized Clinical Trial | Nutrition | JAMA Network Open | JAMA Network
- Longer lunch period leads to kids eating more fruits & vegetables – Study Finds
- Kids eat more fruit and vegetables with longer seated lunch time