FRIDAY, Sept. 11, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Children who have less than 20 minutes to eat lunch at school end up eating less and wasting more healthy foods, a new study reveals.
Federal government guidelines have enhanced the nutritional quality of school lunches, but there are no guidelines on how much time students should have for a lunch period, according to researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.
The study authors said that 20 minutes or less may not be enough time to eat. In addition, waiting in serving lines or arriving late to lunch sometimes left children in the study with as little as 10 minutes to actually sit and eat, the investigators found.
"Many children, especially those from low-income families, rely on school meals for up to half their daily energy intake, so it is essential that we give students a sufficient amount of time to eat their lunches," the study's lead author, Juliana Cohen, an adjunct assistant professor in the department of nutrition, said in a school news release.
"Every school day, the National School Lunch Program helps to feed over 30 million children in 100,000 schools across the U.S., yet little research has been done in this field," added the study's senior author, Eric Rimm, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard Chan School.
In order to investigate how the timing of kids' lunches affects their nutrition, the researchers analyzed the food choices and consumption of 1,000 students in six elementary and middle schools in a low-income urban school district in Massachusetts. They did this by monitoring what the kids left on their plates once their lunch periods, which ranged from 20 to 30 minutes long, ended.
Students with less than 20 minutes for lunch ate 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 to eat, the study found.
There were no significant differences in the kids' food choices, but those with less time to eat were much less likely to select a fruit, according to the study published online Sept. 11 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The kids with less time to eat also left more on their plates, the researchers said.
"We were surprised by some of the results because I expected that with less time children may quickly eat their entree and drink their milk but throw away all of their fruits and vegetables," said Rimm. "Not so. We found they got a start on everything, but couldn't come close to finishing with less time to eat."
Schools may not be able to adjust the length of time kids have to eat their lunch during the school day, but steps could be taken to make sure kids are not wasting their lunch period waiting in long serving or checkout lines, the researchers suggested.
There's more on how to promote healthy eating among kids at Let's Move!