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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.


The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) improved nutrition standards in the Child Nutrition Programs (CNP), requiring more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, all of which can take longer to eat. 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 to maximize the nutritional benefits of the meal pattern. Longer lunch periods have been associated with increased student consumption of fruits and vegetables. This web page was updated as of July 2020.


The amount of time allotted for breakfast and lunch meal periods is not a federal or state requirement, however, the CDE NSD recognizes ensuring adequate time to eat should be accessed and used as a best practice. The former State Superintendent of Public Instruction (SSPI) Tom Torlakson recommended each student should have no less than 10 minutes for breakfast and no less than 20 minutes for lunch after being served.

In January 2013, the former SSPI Tom Torlakson sent a Letter to School Leaders Regarding Adequate Time to Eat Lunch to ensure their students have enough time to eat their lunch. The letter included an attachment titled Adequate Time to Eat: Tips and Strategies which has a compilation of no-cost or low-cost strategies to help school administrators and food service professionals make incremental improvements that ensure students have sufficient time to eat a nutritious lunch.  

In December 2013, the NSD developed two voluntary, anonymous surveys—one for elementary school principals and one for middle and high school principals—to determine best practices and barriers related to providing students adequate time to eat during the school lunch period. The survey responses in the December 2013 Time to Eat Survey Results (PDF) helped pinpoint the most common challenges to providing students adequate meal time. (PDF)

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 an 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

In 2010, the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in CNPs established the SLM to create sustainable, research-based lunchrooms that guide smarter choices. The SLM focuses on no and low-cost solutions, the lunchroom environment, promoting healthful eating behaviors, and sustainability. The SLM strategies that can decrease the time students wait in food service lines include creating a healthy items only speed line to encourage reimbursable meal participation or adding grab-and-go reimbursable meal options, both of which can increase the amount of time students have to eat their lunch.

Strengthen Your Local School Wellness Policy

The CDE Time to Eat Survey responses indicated that less than 25 percent of elementary schools and about 8 percent of middle and high schools have any sort of policy specifying the amount of time students have for lunch. Additionally, many of the responses referenced teacher contracts, rather than LSWPs, which may indicate that even fewer schools have guidelines help ensure adequate time to eat.

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

  • Scheduling issues
    • Not enough time in the school day
    • Too many or not enough lunch periods
    • Minimum days
    • Instructional minute requirements
    • Teacher contract requirements

  • Not enough cafeteria space or seating

  • Insufficient student supervision

  • 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
In January 2013, the former State Superintendent of Public Instruction (SSPI) Tom Torlakson sent a Letter to School Leaders Regarding Adequate Time to Eat Lunch to ensure their students have enough time to eat their lunch.
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.
California Food Policy Advocates (CFPA):
Smarter Lunchrooms Makeover
web page External link opens in new window or tab.
This web page details the SLM techniques that the Los Angeles Unified School District East Valley High School used to improve their meal service. Implementing easy, no-cost or low-cost strategies environmental changes resulted in increased student consumption of fruit and a 15 minute decrease in the time it takes to serve all students lunch.
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. For more information on the study, please contact Tracey Patterson, Nutrition Policy Advocate, California Food Policy Advocates, by phone at 510-433-1122 or by email at
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.
Montana Team Nutrition
Recess Before Lunch Guide External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF)
Provides resources to implement recess before lunch, which is a proven strategy for increasing food consumption and decreasing food waste during meal times.


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: Thursday, August 20, 2020
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