We Force Our School Kids To Eat Their Lunches Way Too Fast

by Julie Scagell
Image via Getty Images/ LightFieldStudios

For some students, actually eating time at lunch is only nine or ten minutes total

We all know that students have a lot to pack into their days. Most have upwards of eight classes plus passing time, and let’s not forgot our kids have to eat at some point. It’s a lot to get through, and unfortunately for many schools, the time they have for a semi-nutritious meal during the day is less than we think.

Talk to any parent and we’ll tell you how critical a good meal is to our kids’ functioning. Nothing screams “hangry” like a child who skips a meal or refuses to eat, then proceeds to throw down shortly afterwards. Nowhere is food more important than during the school day, when they are expected to learn and concentrate. But multiple studies have shown most kids in the US don’t have adequate time to eat their school lunches, NPR reports.

Researchers published a study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics after observing about 1,000 students in third through eighth grade in a low-income school district in Massachusetts, and what they found was extremely concerning.

They logged what students put on their lunch trays and what was left over at the end of their lunch periods. “Kids who had less than 20 minutes to eat were consuming, across the board, less of everything,” Eric Rimm, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health told NPR. Those students were found to consume 13 percent less of their main entree, 12 percent less of their vegetables, and drank 10 percent less milk compared with students who had over 25 minutes to eat. And this is to say nothing of the waste it creates when kids throw away what’s left.

For students who have 20 minutes, this often includes getting to the cafeteria, standing in line for food, eating, and getting to their next class, which leaves almost no time to actually consume a meal. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends students get 20 minutes for lunch, starting when they sit down to eat, which allows enough time to socialize, finish their meals, and also notice when they are full.

Kids who don’t get enough time to eat not only don’t consume enough food, they often aren’t eating the right foods. And for some students, this can have a major impact. “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,” says Juliana Cohen, the study’s lead author.

And while many parents I know pack their kids lunches to avoid the wasted time standing in line, this isn’t an option for many.

We all know schools are pressed to fit more and more into less time and make sure their students perform in the classroom, but cutting down on the time they have to eat nutritious meals while requiring them to accomplish so much simply isn’t the answer.