My daughter’s sixth birthday was last month, and as part of celebrating her big day, I visited with her during lunchtime at school. It was an eye-opening and disheartening experience, to say the least.
Let me explain …
The school she attends allots 15 minutes for recess, followed by 15 minutes for lunch. Naturally, I’ve always thought that she had a full 15 minutes to eat lunch. Not so much.
After recess, my daughter and her classmates stood at the door waiting to be let in by a school employee for a minute (or two). Once inside, everyone needed to take off their hats and mittens, and hang up their jackets. They kept their snow pants and boots on (gotta love winter in Minnesota!).
Once their jackets were hung up (with me helping a couple kids shove hats and mittens into coat sleeves), they washed and dried their hands.
Then they tromped off to the lunch line with their snow pants swooshing and boots clomping to pay for their food, work their way through the line, and finally to sit down to eat.
I pack my daughter’s lunch everyday, so luckily there’s no waiting in line for her.
My daughter and I sat down at our “special guest” table and she proceeded to open her lunch while the other kids were still checking in and getting their food. I looked at the time. They had just spent five or so minutes doing all of the above tasks.
That meant we were down to only 10 minutes to eat … and even less for the children who were last through the food line.
With the few moments of lunchtime left to actually eat (which, again, I had presumed was a full 15 minutes), my daughter was able to eat a few bites of pasta, a couple of blueberries, a small carrot, and drink her milk. (Note 1: She didn’t get a chance to eat her treat, probably because I was there and requested she eat the healthier items first!)
Because it was her birthday, my daughter was able to invite a friend to eat with us. This friend happened to have a home-packed lunch, too, and she was able to eat half of her sandwich (which was already a half so it was really only a quarter), eat her treat, and drink her juice box.
No wonder my daughter always has leftovers in her lunchbox: She simply does not have enough time to eat. And no wonder she usually eats the treat first: She knows she won’t have time to eat it if she waits until the end (smart girl!).
When our time to actually eat was up, I watched as her classmates clomped and swooshed their way to the trash bins with nearly half of their food unfinished. (Note 2: The dumping time also takes time away from the “lunchtime.”)
The 15-Minute Lunchtime Misnomer
When all was said and done, the 15-minute lunchtime was reduced to seven or eight minutes for some kids, which set off several red flags for me:
- Some children snarf their food so they don’t go hungry (causing issues with eating too much and not listening to their body’s natural signal to stop eating).
- Others won’t be able to eat enough and will be hungry in a short while (which seems true for my daughter and her friend).
- Some kids will go for the treat first versus the fruits and veggies so they don’t miss out (which could lead to future sugar addictions and other health issues).
- Lunch is treated as a secondary and unimportant activity during the school day, when it should be treated with as much care as math or music.
It seems to me that all of the above are setting our children up for a host of long-term unhealthy eating habits.
I’m Not Alone
I found this interesting report — “Children eat their school lunch too quickly: an exploratory study of the effect on food intake” — from the National Institutes of Health. The researchers look at the amount of time that schools currently allow for lunchtime and measured the amount of food consumed. The research concluded:
“If insufficient time is allocated for consuming school lunches, compensatory increased speed of eating puts children at risk of losing control over food intake and in many cases over-eating.”
This report seems to support my concerns. And, it doesn’t look like I’m alone about crammed lunchtimes. The following are just a few articles and additional research reports that came to the top of a quick Google search about the topic:
- “Is 15 Minutes Enough Time For Elementary School Lunch?” by Gregg Hennigan, The Iowa Gazette, November 22, 2010
- “11 Minutes to Eat School Lunch?!” by Tom Philpott, Mother Jones, April 25, 2012
- “Have School Lunch Periods Become Cram Sessions?” by Anika Christ, RD, CISSN, CPT, Life Time Fitness, April 1, 2011
- “The Impact of School Lunch Length on Children’s Health” by Rachana Bhatt, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, March 2009
- “Rethinking Lunchtime: Making lunch an integral part of education” by Michael K. Stone, Ecoliteracy
Please note that I’m not suggesting that the actual lunchtime be much longer than 15 minutes — I believe 15 minutes is an adequate amount of time for most young children to eat (and that anything longer could lead to mayhem in the lunchroom!).
I am suggesting, however, that “lunchtime” not include entering the building, hanging up outdoor wear, washing hands, or waiting in line to actually get food.
There simply needs to be a few extra minutes to allow for the inevitable transition from recess to lunch so the children have a full 15 minutes to eat.