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Ensuring Adequate Time to Eat

Resources and information to help local educational agencies (LEA) ensure that students have adequate seated time to eat their meal after being served.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) improved nutrition standards in the school nutrition programs (SNP), requiring more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, all of which can take longer to eat. The 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 new meal pattern. Longer lunch periods have been associated with increased student consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Contents

Letter from the State Superintendent of Public Instruction

In January 2013, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson sent a letter urging school leaders to ensure their students have enough time to eat their lunch. The letter included an attachment with a compilation of low- and no-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.

CDE Time to Eat Survey

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 barriers and best practices related to providing students adequate time to eat during the school lunch period. The survey responses helped pinpoint the most common challenges to providing students adequate time to eat, as well as the solutions schools are currently implementing.

Challenges and Barriers

  • Long and/or slow lines
    • Inadequate points of service
    • Large student population
  • Scheduling issues
    • Not enough time in the school day
    • Too many/not enough lunch periods
    • Minimum days
    • Instructional minute requirements
    • Teacher contract requirements
  • Not enough cafeteria space and/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

Best Practices

Points 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 IDs, lanyards with lunch cards, etc.
  • Have students line up alphabetically
Lunch Periods
  • Add a lunch period or institute staggered/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
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
  • Implement a local school wellness policy (LSWP) that supports time to eat

Determining 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. The National Food Service Management Institute (NFSMI) conducted a time study related to school lunch and published their findings in an issue of Insight. The article details how the study was conducted and may help LEAs and schools evaluate the lunch period.

NFSMI Insight, “Measuring and Evaluating the Adequacy of the School Lunch Period” External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF)

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 LSWPs, 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.

Smarter Lunchrooms Movement

In 2010, the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs established the SLM to create sustainable, research-based lunchrooms that guide smarter choices. SLM focuses on low- and no-cost solutions, the lunchroom environment, promoting healthful eating behaviors, and sustainability. 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.

For more information on SLM, please visit the Smarter Lunchrooms External link opens in new window or tab. Web site.

SLM Workshops

In School Year (SY) 2014–15, the NSD and the California SLM Collaborative with Cornell University provided ten two-part SLM training workshops in March and April for food service directors, cafeteria managers, school nutrition specialists, and local health department staff working with schools.

For more information on the SLM workshops, please contact Heather Reed, Nutrition Education Consultant, California Department of Education, by phone at 916-323-3581 or by e-mail at hreed@cde.ca.gov.

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 February 26, 2014, USDA proposed regulations to strengthen LSWPs by creating a framework and guidelines for written wellness policies established by LEAs. The 2014 LSWP Proposed 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, please visit the USDA Local School Wellness Policy Web page External link opens in new window or tab. Web page and the CDE Local School Wellness Policy Web page.

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 pages have resources to help LEAs evaluate and implement Recess Before Lunch:

Additional Resources

This Web page details the SLM techniques that Los Angeles Unified School District’s East Valley High School used to improve their meal service. Implementing easy, low- or no-cost 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 (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, CFPA Nutrition Policy Advocate, by phone at 510-433-1122 or by e-mail at tracey@cfpa.net.

This article discusses three studies sponsored by the NFSMI to measure the average time required by kindergarten through twelfth grade 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, such as 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.

This publication provides the design principles behind developing a healthy school nutrition environment, as well as quality indicators within each design principle that, taken together, reflect the “ideal” for a school nutrition environment. It also recommends strategies the school community can implement to create a nutrition environment that supports the development of healthy lifestyles during and after school. Finally, School Nutrition…By Design! provides a set of resources and examples that change managers within the school community can use when designing their own implementation strategies.

Questions:   Nutrition Services Division | 800-952-5609
Last Reviewed: Monday, April 3, 2017
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