Time to Eat!

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It is back to school time, which leaves parents scrambling to look for food to pack in lunches or reviewing school menus to see what will be served on various days. As parents we all strive to provide the healthiest food and provide input to schools as to what foods to serve at lunch, but if we only pay attention to what is served we miss a big contributor to our child’s nutrition during the school day….the amount of time students have to eat lunch.

According to the National State Boards of Education State School Health Policy Database most states have no state policy for adequate time to eat. The states that do have a policy have a state minimum requirement of 20-30 minutes.  Many students only have 15 minutes to eat their lunch.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) compiled a report that summarizes the research supporting improved nutrition leads to better academic performance. Much of the research is linked to student participation in the free breakfast and lunch programs that correlates with improved test scores, reduced absenteeism, and improved cognitive performance. In addition to this report there was a study done by the Harvard School of Public Health that found students that had insufficient time to eat lunch (<25 minutes) consumed less food from all food groups. If lunch times were longer kids would have more time to eat a balanced lunch and be able to perform optimally in the classroom.

The topic of time for lunch at school and how it affects nutrient intake and academic performance has not been greatly studied. However, as a parent I have observed that as my kids have less time to eat their lunch they consume less at school and are absolutely starving when they get home.

Typically, schools will give more time to younger children to eat and less time to older children. Younger children also have a planned snack time while older children are not encouraged to have snack at school. As a child nutrition expert this seems backwards because as children age and get closer to puberty energy needs increase.

The trend of older children having less time to eat at school only leads to overeating and uncontrolled snacking later in the day. When I work with school aged children and their parents they report that their kids are starving when they get home and some kids have a hard time controlling their intake. Research shows that having structured meals and snacks leads to better nutrient intakes and healthy weights. Possibly, schools need to allow them adequate lunch and snack time to feed their growing bodies and brains.

Since it is not likely the time children are given to eat at school will change here are some ideas for parents to improve the nutrition of their elementary student:

Do not overpack the lunch box. Pack a lunch that represents 3-4 food groups, that is energy and nutrient dense. Some lunch ideas would be:

·      Tortilla with meat, cheese, and veggies and a banana

·       Yogurt with fruit and granola and carrots

·       Leftover pasta with grilled chicken and vegetables in a thermos with a side of fruit

·       Homemade smoothie (yogurt, fruit, and veggies), whole grain muffin, and a cheese stick

Power up with breakfast- Provide a large breakfast for your child since you know he or she may not have a lot of time to eat lunch at school. Some breakfast ideas include:

·       Breakfast Burrito with fruit

·       Oatmeal with fruit and nuts and a glass of milk

·       Whole Grain pancakes topped with peanut butter and banana

·       Scrambled eggs with cheese and side of whole grain toast and fruit

Provide a mini meal for the afterschool snack to avoid a child overeating on chips and candy. Mini-meal suggestions are:

·       ½ sandwich with fruit or vegetables and a glass of milk

·       Whole grain muffin with a fruit and yogurt smoothie

·       Whole grain cereal with milk and fruit

·       Edamame, cherry tomatoes, and whole grain crackers

In addition to trying these ideas become involved in wellness at your child’s school or contact your lawmakers when they are discussing issues of school nutrition. According to labor laws adult workers are to be provided a 30 minutes lunch period. It is only fair that we provide our students enough time to fuel their bodies and brains as well.