Our Kids Need More Time To Eat Lunch At School

by Amber Leventry
Originally Published: 

In order to have a conversation about my kids’ day at school, I usually ask them who they sat next to at lunch or if their school cheeseburger was yummy. But sometimes I don’t hear the first answer because all I can focus on is my child telling me they only got to take a couple of bites of their sandwich before throwing it away.

When I ask why, they tell me they didn’t have time to eat before the bell rang for recess. The first time they mentioned this, I assumed they were busy talking or goofing around. I was quick to mention that it was a waste of food and money to just throw away most of a meal, but also that they needed to eat because it was important. But after several times of lamenting over a lack of lunch time, I found out that their lunch period was only 20 minutes. That includes waiting in line for hot lunch and finding their table before they have the chance to dig in.

This is ridiculous. Kids need more time to eat lunch at school.

Kids are naturally slower eaters—at least mine and all of the kids I have ever been around are. Throw the distractions of a room full of people and friends who they finally get to chat with after staying focused in the classroom for the morning, and you have a perfect storm of empty bellies and wasted food. My kids are not the only ones experiencing a rushed lunch period. Schools across the country are seeing a decrease in time to eat. This isn’t pairing well with a decrease in recess time.

Give our kids a (literal) break.

With a hyper focus on test scores and preparation for standardized testing, we are depriving our kids of critical learning time that doesn’t take place in the classroom. And, doing so makes the extra time in the classroom less efficient, and more disruptive.

Taking away recess is used as punishment too, but often kids are punished because they need recess. The American Academy of Pediatrics supports more recess in schools and found that playtime isn’t just a physical release but that it promotes “social, emotional and cognitive development” in ways not expected.

Co-author of the AAP statement, Dr. Robert Murray who is a pediatrician and professor of human nutrition at the Ohio State University, says recess, “Helps children practice conflict resolution if we allow them unstructured play, and it lets them come back to class more ready to learn and less fidgety.”

Kids have physical energy to burn, but often don’t have the nutritional energy to do so. Food insecurity in this country is a real problem that is stigmatized and not talked about enough. Research done by No Kid Hungry counts 22 million students across the country who rely on reduced-price or free school lunches from the National School Lunch Program, which is funded by the USDA. They also report that over 13 million children from low-income families go to school hungry.

JGI/Tom Grill/Getty

By the time students get to the cafeteria, get their food from the lunch line and sit, most of the lunch period is eaten up. Pun intended. A poll done by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, confirmed that “20 percent of parents of students from kindergarten through fifth grade surveyed said their child only gets 15 minutes or less to eat.”

Hungry students do not perform well. Test scores are lower, attention spans decrease, and behavior problems increase.

If kids have to wait until lunch time to eat, and then are rushed through it, the system is setting them up for failure. The system is failing them.

Shortened lunch times are adding to obesity too. When we don’t have at least 20 minutes of time to sit and eat, the brain can’t process if we are hungry or full. When students feel rushed, they overeat or don’t eat the healthy options on their plates. They skip the entrée and veggies and head right for the chocolate milk, fruit, or sugary options—options that are quicker to eat. This is setting up an unhealthy relationship with food.

Other parents are frustrated too. Sara, mom to a kindergartener and first grader, told Scary Mommy, “I have been working on the nutrition council and this topic was brought up; however, the idea to lengthen the period was shot down. The argument was that the kids that are done earlier would get bored/rowdy/disruptive and create a hard to control situation for the lunchroom monitors and staff. I disagree.”

She also mentioned that she would be okay with extending the day by 10 minutes if it means giving kids more time to eat.

I recently learned that my kids’ lunch time was increased to 25 minutes. This doesn’t allow for 25 minutes of sitting, eating, and socializing, but it does add a few more minutes than they had last year.

There are no federal laws that determine the length of lunch periods in schools. This means that you can talk to your school district, school board, and PTO to make changes that will benefit your kid’s education, health, and emotional growth. I am thankful for the small adjustment my kids’ school made, but every school morning is the same. I wake my three kids for school and as they eat their breakfast, I place their lunch boxes on the counter and start loading them for the day. I also read the day’s lunch options from the school menu and ask, “Home lunch or school lunch?”

Home lunch gets them that and extra snacks. School lunch gets them extra snacks too. No matter where they get their entrée, they might not have time to eat it all. The snacks are for later in the afternoon when they get hungry. While I know the lunch providers make sure my kids take the required balance of food sources, I don’t trust that my kids will eat more than the fries or mac and cheese they wanted. Nor do I trust that my kid will have enough time to eat whatever they put on their tray. They are—and rightfully so—socializing and unwinding. They are recharging themselves through friendship and food.

Unfortunately, many kids don’t have time to do both.

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