The Surprising Health Benefit of Longer School Lunches

A new study links lunchtime length to the quality of kids' food. 

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Photo by Getty Images/Ugurhan Betin

Researchers may have found a solution for getting kids to eat their vegetables (and decrease the amount of cafeteria food waste): lengthen their lunch period to at least 25 minutes. 

A new study that examined how lunch period length affects students’ food intake showed that children who had fewer than 20 minutes to eat consumed significantly less of their entrees, milk, and veggies—and were less likely to select a piece of fruit. The results are published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The data was collected on six nonconsecutive days as part of the 2011-2012 Modifying Eating and Lifestyles at School (MEALS) study, which aims to improve the selection and consumption of healthier school foods. The investigators studied 1,001 students in grades two through eight in five elementary and middle schools in an urban, low-income school district. Lunch period lengths varied from 20 to 30 minutes.

Children with fewer than 20 minutes to eat lunch consumed 13 percent less of their entrees, 10 percent less of their milk, and 12 percent less of their veggies compared to students who had at least 25 minutes. Not only did this result in more food being thrown in the trash, it also meant kids were missing out on crucial components of a healthy diet (such as whole grains and calcium), the researchers said. 

Getting kids to eat healthy lunches is a national concern; in fact, there is a USDA mandate that requires students to take a fruit or vegetable in their school lunch. However, there are currently no national standards for the length of a lunch period, and many schools don't account for the time it takes to travel to the cafeteria and wait in line for lunch. By the time they sat down, some children in the study had as little as 10 minutes to actually eat.  

But schools don't necessarily need to re-work their whole schedules, the researchers said. There are a variety of ways to give kids more time to eat. 

"Although not all schools will be able to accommodate longer lunch periods, several other factors have been cited as areas where schools can improve the amount of time students have to eat," Juliana F. W. Cohen, lead investigator of the study, said in a statement. "Increasing the number of serving lines, more efficient cashiers, and/or an automated point of sale system can all lead to enhanced efficiency for students going through lunch lines."