When children sit down to eat at school, fruits and vegetables may not be their first choice. But with more time at the lunch table, you are more likely to get these healthy foods. If we want to improve children’s nutrition and health, ensuring longer school lunch breaks can help achieve those goals, according to research from the University of Illinois.
“Ten minutes of sitting 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 the recess. This “It’s time for children to really have their meals eaten for less than scheduled,” said Melissa Pflugh Prescott, an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the U of I.
Prescott and study co-authors Xanna Burg, Jessica Metcalfe and Brenna Ellison compared the consumption of fruits and vegetables during a 10 to 20 minute seated lunch and the results were clear.
“During shorter lunch periods, the children ate significantly less of the fruit and vegetable portions of their meal, and there was no significant difference in the amount of drinks or food they ate. It makes sense to eat the portion of the meal you see “Go ahead first, and if there is enough time you can go elsewhere. But if there is not enough time these objects suffer, and tend to be fruits and vegetables,” Prescott explains.
This particularly affects children from low-income families participating in the National School Lunch Program who may not have the resources to bring their own meal from home to avoid meal line waiting times, he adds.
Prescott and her colleagues conducted the study with elementary and middle school children enrolled in a summer campus on the campus of the University of Illinois. The researchers set up the lunch area as a school cafeteria where students crossed the lunch line and chose their food. They prepared the meals according to the instructions of the National Meal School.
“We tried to make this as comparable as possible to the everyday school. We worked with the local school district and used the same food distributors as, and selected the menu items based on the local public school menu,” explains Prescott.
Each day was randomly assigned to be either a short or a large meal day. Every short lunch day was combined with a great lunch day with an identical menu. The researchers wanted to rule out that the types of food served would make a difference in what the children ate.
The researchers took a picture of each disk as the children left the meal line. They watched the time from the children sitting down to eating and observed the behavior throughout the meal, including any food exchange, peer interaction, and telephone use.
After lunch, the children put their tray of leftovers on a shelf and completed a two-question survey about the taste and appearance of their meal. The researchers measured all portions before and after the meal to get an estimate of how much each child ate.
While fruits were consumed at an overall higher rate than vegetables, consumption of both types of food was significantly higher for longer lunch hours, Prescott says.
He notes that the study affects the effectiveness of the Healthy Children Without Hunger Act, which the US government implemented in 2010 to improve dietary standards for school meals.
“In my opinion, one of the best things about the new diet is that they require a variety of vegetables to be served each week to ensure that children from all income and resource levels are exposed to different healthy foods that they may be exposed to. “But if we have lunch periods that are too short to give children a chance to get used to these foods, then we almost set policies to fail,” says Prescott.
“A key finding 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 school lunch,” he said.
School lunch policies can be decided at district level, with some room for individual schools to set their own standards. For example, schools may introduce longer lunch times than district orders.
Prescott notes that longer lunch times can also have beneficial effects on children in addition to a healthy diet.
“The seating time children have is also valuable time to connect with their peers. They may have limited opportunities to do so throughout the school day. We found significantly fewer social interactions during the 10 minute lunch “shows that other positive results can also come from longer lunch breaks.”
The Department of Food Science and Nutrition is located at the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences.