In place of fancy chefs, cutesy lunch boxes, and smiley-faced stickers, nutritionists are now making more straightforward suggestions to get the most out of school meals – make the lunch period longer.
Karen Kaplan, writing for The Los Angeles Times, says proponents of this idea have some data to back up their suggestion. Researchers found after analyzing the eating habits of 1,001 elementary and middle school students in the Boston-area that the more time students had to finish their lunches, the more vegetables, fruits, and milk they consumed.
The study, Modifying Eating and Lifestyles at School (MEALS), published last week in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, observed students in six schools who had as little as 20 minutes for lunch. Some of that time was spent getting to the cafeteria and waiting in line. By the time many kids were finally seated and eating their lunches, they had as little as 10 minutes to eat.
In the other five schools in the study, two had 25-minute lunch periods and three had 30 minutes for their meal.
In another study from Merrimack College in Massachusetts, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and a Boston-based nonprofit called Project Bread, two trends were found. First, the less time children had to eat, the less likely they were to put fruit on their trays. In schools where they had less than 25 minutes to eat, 57% chose a piece of fruit for their lunch. If they had less than 20 minutes for lunch, just 44% selected fruit. The percentage increased very little for those who had 20 to 24 minutes for lunchtime. Those who were pushed for time probably went past the fruit "trying to rush through the lunch line to maximize their amount of time to eat."
"It is also possible that these students recognized they would have less time to eat and therefore only selected foods they were likely to consume," said researchers.
The scientists concluded by collecting students' trays and weighing the food that was left that kids were concentrating on eating their entrees. But more time in the cafeteria meant more time to eat healthful side dishes.
"A 30-minute lunch period would enable most students to have a sufficient amount of seated time in cafeterias, taking into account travel time to the cafeteria and waiting in line for food," they wrote.
If scheduling longer lunch periods is impossible, schools could add more serving lines, create automated payment systems, or implement other systems that could make cafeterias more efficient.
Traci Pederson, reporting for PsychCentral, writes that children from low-income families often get half their daily caloric intake from their school lunches, which explains the extreme importance of finding ways to improve student food selections and consumption.
The study also pointed out that kids who are given less time for lunch miss out on important components of a healthy diet, such as fiber-rich whole grains and calcium. Lead investigator Juliana F. W. Cohen, Sc.D., Sc.M., of the Department of Health Sciences at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, said that policies that improve the school food environment can affect the "growing socioeconomic disparities in the prevalence of obesity and in improving the overall nutrient quality of children's diets."
Previous research has shown that if food is eaten too quickly, there can be a notable decrease in satiety, which can lead to obesity. The habits learned in the school cafeteria can be habits that follow a child into his adulthood. Jonathan Vernon, reporting for Medical News Today, quoted one of the paper's authors on the broader importance of studying how kids actually consume food at school:
Senior author Eric Rimm, professor of epidemiology and nutrition, says that "every school day the National School Lunch Program helps to feed over 30 million children in 100,000 schools across the US, yet little research has been done in this field."