New study suggests children who get short lunch breaks of less than 20 minutes in schools indulge in unhealthy eating habits as they rarely finish their meals in time.
The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study claims that children should get at least 25 minutes break to eat their lunch.
The research team noted that each day, over 30 million US students receive a free or discounted meal thanks to the National School Lunch Programme. A large number of children, especially those from low-income families, depend on free school meals for half of their daily energy intake so it becomes essential that students get sufficient amount of time to eat their meals.
The researchers wanted to examine the effect of lunch period length on students’ food choices and intake. They looked at 1,000 children in grades three through eight from six elementary and middle schools, all of whom had lunch periods ranging from 20-30 minutes. They all were from a low-income urban school district in Massachusetts.
They analyzed the students’ food selection and consumption by monitoring what was left on their plates at the end of the lunch period.
The researcher team found that students who got less than 20 minutes to eat lunch consumed 13 percent less of their entrees, 12 percent less of their vegetables, and 10 percent less of their milk than students who had at least 25 minutes or more to eat.
The research also found that when it came to picking up a piece of fruit, the rushed group made a fruit selection 44 percent of the time compared with those with more time to eat, who made a fruit selection 57 per cent of the time. Also, there was more food waste among groups with less time to eat.
“Over the course of the week, it could be an extra serving of vegetables or fruit that they’re missing out on because they’re rushing through their meal,” said Eric Rim, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“We were surprised by some of the results because I expected that with less time children may quickly eat their entrée and drink their milk but throw away all of their fruits and vegetables. Not so, we found they got a start on everything, but couldn’t come close to finishing with less time to eat.”
The researchers acknowledged that while it may not be possible for all schools to lengthen their lunch periods, they should try to develop strategies to move kids more quickly through lunch lines, such as by adding more serving lines or setting up automated checkout systems.
“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,” said lead author of the study Juliana Cohen, adjunct assistant professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, US.
The study has been published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.