Give kids just a little more time if you want them to eat better.
New research suggests that longer school lunch breaks could boost their intake of fruits and veggies.
“It makes sense that you might eat the part of the meal you look forward to first, and if there’s enough time left you might go towards the other parts,” said study author Melissa Pflugh Prescott, assistant professor of school/childhood foods and nutrition at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “But if there’s not enough time those items suffer, and they tend to be fruits and vegetables.”
Her team observed food choices of 38 elementary- and middle school-aged kids at a summer camp on the university campus. At lunch, they went through a cafeteria line to select meals prepared according to National School Lunch Program guidelines.
From 241 observations, researchers compared kids’ fruit and vegetable consumption when they had either 10 or 20 minutes of time to sit and eat.
“During shorter lunch periods, children ate significantly less of the fruit and vegetable parts of their meal, while there was no significant difference in the amount of beverages or entrees they consumed,” Prescott said in a university news release.
Long waits in line may particularly affect kids who participate in the National School Lunch Program because they can’t afford to bring their own food from home.
“Ten minutes of seated lunch time or less is quite common,” Prescott said. “Scheduled lunch time may be longer, but students have to wait in line to get their food. And sometimes lunch periods are shared with recess. This means the amount of time children actually have to eat their meals is much less than the scheduled time.”
Prescott suggested the findings have implications for U.S. federal efforts put into place 2010 to improve nutrition standards for school meals.
“In my opinion, one of the best things about the new nutrition standards is that they require a variety of vegetables be served each week, to ensure children from all income and resource levels get exposed to different healthy foods they might not have access to at home,” Prescott said. “But if we have lunch periods that are too short to allow children the opportunity to get used to those foods, then we’re almost setting the policies up to fail.”
The study was recently published in the journal JAMA Network Open.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on nutrition.
SOURCE: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, news release, July 21, 2021