It’s a simple fact that most kids at school eat for lunch what they consider to be “the good stuff” first. But research shows when they have ample time at the lunch table the likelihood they will eat fruits and vegetables increases dramatically.
Researchers from the University of Illinois wanted to know what role the length of a student’s lunch period played on their nutrition and published their findings in the journal JAMA Network Open. They found the longer children were seated at lunch the more fruits and vegetables they ate.
"Ten minutes of seated lunch time or less is quite common,” says Melissa Pflugh Prescott, assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at U of I. “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 and her colleagues compared fruit and vegetable consumptions for school children during 10- and 20-minute periods of seated lunch time and noticed a big difference.
"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. “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. But if there's not enough time those items suffer, and they tend to be fruits and vegetables."
Researchers worked with elementary and middle school children at a summer camp on the Illinois campus. They set up a cafeteria complete with a serving line and prepared meals according to National School Lunch Program guidelines.
"We tried to make this as comparable to everyday school as possible,” Prescott said. “We worked with the local school district and used the same food distributors as they did, and we selected the menu items based on the local public school menu."
Children were randomly assigned to and rotated between long or short lunch periods. They had similar menu items on long and short days to rule out the possibility the types of food would influence what they ate.
Researchers took photos and assessed by weight how much of each item was eaten. They observed that while more fruits were eaten than vegetables, both options were consumed at greater quantities when the children had longer to eat. They believe these findings have bearing on the effectiveness of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which the U.S. government implemented in 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. Our findings support policies that require at least 20 minutes of seated lunch time at school."