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Students need at least 25 minutes to have a hearty, nutritious school lunch, according to a new study coming from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Researchers set out to understand how elementary and middle school students make their nutrition choices during school lunch break. Surprisingly, the overwhelming majority included milk, vegetables and small entrees on their tray. However, due to limited time to actually eat, most of the offerings were left on the tray.
The findings of the study were published online in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
With students relying on the school lunch offering for one third to a half of their caloric intake, the findings of the Harvard study draw attention on a faulty system that needs to change.
According to Juliana Cohen, lead author of the study and assistant professor both in the Department of Health Sciences at the Merrimack College and in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard Chan School:
“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 included 1,001 students from six middle and elementary schools in Massachusetts. The lunch break varied from school to school in between 20 to 30 minutes. The researchers looked at what the students chose to put on their plate from the school’s cafeteria offering and what was left on their trays at the end of the break.
In the U.S. 30 million children from 100,000 schools benefit from a daily school lunch as part of the National School Lunch Program. Yet, with too little time left for the students to eat, the school meal is not reaching the goal of providing fully nutritious meals.
Observing the students’ consumption patterns the researchers were surprised when they saw that while their choices mirrored a balanced and nutritious meal plan, there was a significant difference between what the students ate within a 20-minute lunch break or a 25-minute lunch break.
The students who had 20 minutes to go through the line and eat were observed to have consumed 10 percent less of the milk they chose, 12 percent less vegetables and 13 percent less of the entry snacks compared to students who had at least 25 minutes designated for their lunch break.
Choosing fruits was a hard decision. 57 percent of the students with more than 20 minutes to consume their lunch chose fruits. Only 44 percent of the other group made the same choice. Unsurprisingly, food waste was higher with the students who had less time to eat.
One of the main issues found by the researchers was cueing time. Waiting in line significantly cut time to eat. Particularly for the students with a 20-minute lunch break this left as much as 10 minutes to eat.
The proposals in the study suggest that schools either increase the timeframe for the lunch break to at least 25 minutes or implement a more efficient serving system in the school cafeterias.
Photo Credits: Flickr
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