Our Kids Need More Time To Eat Lunch At School

by Meredith Ethington
XiXinXing / Shutterstock

Since my daughter was in kindergarten, we’ve struggled with getting her to each lunch at school. I’ve tried letting her buy a hot lunch. I’ve tried cutting things into fun shapes. I’ve tried begging, pleading, talking to teachers, and packing things I know aren’t healthy just so she won’t come home faint from not eating all day.

She’s a fifth-grader now, and (unfortunately) we’re still struggling with this issue.

A couple of years ago, I popped into the school to drop something off, and I realized it was lunchtime. I stuck my head in the cafeteria and saw my daughter sandwiched between two boys, literally packed into a tiny table like a bunch of sardines. I think her entire class of 30 or so kids was all sitting at one tiny lunchroom table.

I watched for a second and I swear to you, she was trying to move her arms like an itty-bitty T-rex to get food into her mouth because she was so smashed by the kids next to her.

It was loud (as elementary lunchrooms tend to be), overcrowded, and the amount of time they get to eat is shameful — a whopping 15 minutes.

At my kids’ school, they combine recess with lunch. The total time period is 30 minutes, and they supposedly get 15 minutes for lunch, then 15 minutes for lunch recess. But I’m frequently told by my kids that they don’t have time to eat. There is always a reason. The teacher kept them for a few minutes before they walked down to the cafeteria because of kids who wouldn’t stop talking while lining up, or they stand in the lunch line for ten minutes and have five minutes to eat.

Five minutes to consume a meal.

And if a kid isn’t finished when it’s time for the next grade to move in, I’m told they can stay and finish their lunch. But what kid is going to stay to wait for the grade older than them when all their buddies are running outside to play? Not mine.

They’d rather chuck that sandwich that I prepared lovingly (or begrudgingly) that morning into the trash can and go run around with their friends — because they are kids.

In my opinion, they aren’t getting enough time. They aren’t getting enough space. They aren’t getting enough of the right foods. And every child has the right to eat a full, healthy meal at school, regardless of their financial situation. Period.

And can we please stop embarrassing kids who run out of their lunch money in front of their peers? We’ve been focused on getting healthier foods into our schools, which is important, but what about making sure kids have a good environment to eat those foods too?

How can we expect kids to learn on an empty stomach because they simply ran out of time?

A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics looked at how lunch times affect what kids eat. They found that when kids had less time to eat, they actually ate less of everything.

In a statement to NPR, Juliana Cohen, the lead author on the study said, “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.”

I’m perfectly aware that my daughter, and her lunch eating issues, might be an extreme case. She might just be a super-distracted kid. She told me that one kid at her table poured his chocolate milk into his mac and cheese and stirred it up in front of her. She lost her appetite that day (because, obviously). So I realize there are factors that can’t be accounted for here.

But the truth is, there are lots of problems with lunch in the public school system. And it’s not just about making sure there is a veggie on their plate. Kids are going hungry. Kids are being embarrassed. Kids are not eating because of strict lunch times, and rigid rules, and tight spaces. Frankly, the priority for making sure kids eat in public school seems low.

My daughter’s teacher has helped brainstorm ideas with me. She’s not to blame. In fact, she’s helped a lot with coming up with solutions, because like most teachers, she’s a Godsend who truly cares about her students.

But I’d like to see more changes come about in public schools when it comes to school lunch. Let’s just give them 30 minutes and see what happens? Let’s try making sure kids don’t feel embarrassed when they don’t have money to pay. Let’s give them a little more room to spread out and have some personal space, and let’s make sure they understand that eating food is essential to learning. Let them eat and play, not choose one or the other.

Because I don’t know about you, but when I get hangry, things can get ugly. And kids are just tiny humans who get hangry too. So let’s fill those bellies and make school the best environment we can to ensure they are getting the nutrition and energy they need to maximize their potential.