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Ensuring Adequate Time to Eat

Includes background information, best practices, and resources for program operators participating in the Child Nutrition Programs trying to ensuring students have adequate time to eat during meal times.


Creating a positive school meal environment, including providing adequate time to eat once a child receives their meal is a proven strategy to help students reach their full academic potential and to improve their overall health and well-being. Studies have shown that longer school lunch periods are associated with increased student consumption of healthy food choices such as more fruits, vegetables and less plate waste. Additionally, there is a direct correlation between a healthy diet and a student’s ability to learn and thrive.

With the implementation of the new State Meal Mandate in School Year (SY) 2022–23, public and charter schools, as well as county offices of education will be making available a breakfast and lunch to all students each school day. With the resulting increase in meals served, schools are encouraged to examine the student meal experience, including adequate time to eat.

While there is no current federal or state requirement for the amount of time allotted for breakfast and lunch meal periods, the Center for Disease Control recommends ensuring that students have at least 20 minutes for lunch once they are seated.

The California Department of Education (CDE) Nutrition Services Division (NSD) strongly encourages schools to ensure their students have adequate time to eat after being served in order to maximize the nutritional benefits of the meal pattern.

Best Practices

Below are some suggestions to help increase the time a student would have to eat their meals.

Point of Service

  • Upgrade or add points of service to speed up or shorten the lunch line

  • Rearrange or spread out points of service for better access for students

  • Place grab and go carts at exits to encourage students on open campuses to eat a meal before they leave

  • Speed up service with barcode scanners, photo identifications, lanyards with lunch cards, etc.

  • Have students line up alphabetically

Lunch Periods

  • Add a lunch period or institute staggered or overlapping lunches

  • Lengthen the lunch period by adding time at the end of the school day

  • Discontinue morning recess and add that time to the lunch period

Supervision at Lunch

  • Add additional staff to supervise in the cafeteria or on the lunch line

  • Ask for parent volunteers to help provide lunchtime supervision

  • Have the principal on daily lunch duty to improve student behavior and school morale

  • Assign students to sit at the same table daily

Recess or Free Time

  • Implement recess before lunch

  • Alternate lunch and recess: some students are out playing while others eat

  • Split the lunchtime recess: students have 15 minutes of play, eat lunch, and then have another 15 minute recess

  • Provide a few minutes of free time before lunch to allow middle and high school students to expend some energy before eating

Ensuring Seat Time

  • Dismiss students individually instead of allowing them to get up and leave when finished

  • Require a specific amount of time for sitting and eating before going out to play

  • Encourage children to finish their meal by having a few minutes of quiet time at the end of the eating period

  • Install timers in the cafeteria that start when the last student in line sits down; students must stay seated until the timer counts down to zero

Determine Adequate Time to Eat

Schools can observe their lunch service to determine if students have enough time to eat, as well as any actual or perceived barriers to school lunch participation. Once a local educational agency (LEA) identifies any issues, schools can extend lunch periods, hire more cafeteria staff, add points of service, or find other ways to improve the meal service to ensure that students have enough time to eat. Schools can also ensure that students have adequate time to eat through guidelines established in their local school wellness policies (LSWP), or by increasing the amount of time students have to eat by introducing efficiencies that speed up the meal service. Changes recommended by the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement (SLM) improve line and service efficiency through additional speed lines, food serving and storage equipment, and point-of-sale options.

Implement Smarter Lunchrooms Movement

The SLM applies research-based approaches that use low or no-cost strategies in the cafeteria environment to promote healthy eating behaviors. For example, SLM strategies include creating a healthy items only speed line or adding grab-and-go reimbursable meal options. Both of which can encourage reimbursable meal participation, decrease the time students wait in food service lines, and increase the amount of time students have to eat their lunch. To learn more about the basics of the SLM and tips on how to implement the SLM, visit the SLM of California (SLM of CA) web page External link opens in new window or tab..

Strengthen Your Local School Wellness Policy

While there are currently no federal or California state regulations requiring a minimum amount of time for school meals, districts can define policy regarding the amount of time students are provided to eat their lunch through their LSWP. Setting policy at the local level allows the individual needs of each LEA to be addressed.

On July 29, 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released the final regulations to strengthen LSWPs by expanding a framework and guidelines for written wellness policies established by LEAs. The 2016 LSWP Final Rule states, in part:

. . . To address school meals, the local school wellness policy could include information such as:

. . . Policies regarding the timing and duration of school meals that consider evidence-based research to support healthy eating (i.e., the periods or times in which school meals are offered; the amount of time allowed for students to eat breakfast and lunch at school, after being seated; recess before or after lunch) . . .

For more information, visit the CDE Local School Wellness Policy web page.  

Position Recess before Lunch

Research conducted by the Montana Team Nutrition Program indicates that recess before lunch decreases discipline problems on the playground, in the cafeteria, and in the classroom. Students return to class more settled, calmer, and ready to learn. Focus groups found that children preferred playing prior to eating lunch. Implementing recess before lunch can reduce plate waste, increase student consumption of food, decrease student wait time in line, and reduce student discipline referrals.

The following web page has resources to help LEAs evaluate and implement Recess Before Lunch, visit the Peaceful Playgrounds Recess Before Lunch web page External link opens in new window or tab..

Additional Solutions

  • Promote collaboration at the school and district level; school administration and nutrition staff can work together to ensure all students have enough time to eat

  • Award front of the line passes to students at the end of the line or as an incentive for good behavior

  • Reward students with extra time added onto a lunch period

  • Improve food quality and variety, pay attention to student preference

  • Cut up fruits and vegetables to make them easier to eat

Challenges and Barriers

From the NSD survey, here were the common challenges and barriers.

  • Long or slow lines
    • Inadequate points of service
    • Large student population
    • (See Point of Service suggested solutions)
  • Scheduling issues
    • Not enough time in the school day
    • Too many or not enough lunch periods
    • Minimum days
    • Instructional minute requirements
    • Teacher contract requirements
    • (See Lunch Periods suggested solutions)
  • Not enough cafeteria space or seating
  • Insufficient student supervision and student behavior
  • Food service staffing issues
  • Kitchen delays (slow prep, running out of food)

  • Pizza day (long lines due to popular items)
  • Lack of funding and/or budget difficulties


Resource Description
The former SSPI Tom Torlakson sent a letter that included this attachment which includes a compilation of no and low-cost tips and techniques to help school administrators and food service professionals make incremental improvements that ensure students have sufficient time to eat a nutritious lunch.
This tool provides quality indicators within each design principle that, taken together, reflect the ideal for a school nutrition environment. It also provides recommended strategies the school community can implement to create a nutrition environment that supports the development of healthy lifestyles during and after school. Finally, it provides a set of resources and examples that managers within the school community can use while designing their own implementation strategies.
This web page details the low- and no-cost SLM techniques that can be used to improve meal service.
CDC Making Time for School Lunch External link opens in new window or tab. This web page details benefits and best practices in ensuring adequate time to eat. The page also links to the research brief of the same title.

This study, published in the Journal of School Health (Gosliner, Wendi. September 2014, Volume 84, Number 9), assessed associations between selective school-level factors and students' consumption of fruits and vegetables at school. Better understanding of school factors associated with increased produce consumption is especially important, as students are served more produce items at school.

This article discusses three studies to measure the average time required by kindergarten through grade twelve students to consume lunch. The average time for students to consume lunch was between 7 and 10 minutes. The authors also discuss other timed elements of the dining experience: socializing, service, and clean-up activities. School food service directors can use the information from these time studies to advocate for reasonable lunch schedules that allow students at least 20 minutes to eat after they arrive at the table with their food.


Contact Us

If you have any questions, please contact the California Department of Education Nutrition Services Division by phone at 800-952-5609 or by email at

Subscribe to the School Nutrition Program Mailing List.

Follow @CDENutrition on Twitter.

Questions:   Nutrition Services Division | 800-952-5609
Last Reviewed: Wednesday, September 6, 2023
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