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Adequate Time to Eat: Tips and Strategies

Tips and strategies to maximize the time students are seated and eating school meals.

Consider the following tips and strategies to maximize the time students are seated and eating school meals.

No or Low Cost Ideas
  1. Provide menu flyers or signage, preferably with photos, at various points in line so students can decide what they want before reaching the serving area. Consider offering the healthiest foods at the start of the line.

  2. Make sure that students get a full lunch period so they can finish their meal. Dismiss students from class on time; do not use the lunch period for discipline.

  3. Form a team of students, parents, teachers, food service staff, and school leaders to consider how to make lunchtime work better. Assess the mealtime. What is working? How can you build on that? How much time do the students spend in line? How much time do students have to get to the cafeteria? Identify the points of gridlock and research how to tackle them.

  4. Schedule recess before lunch at elementary schools so children can come to lunch less distracted and more ready to eat. Studies show that students eat more when recess is scheduled before lunch. In addition, it actually adds more instructional time to the day because children do not need as much time to settle down when they return to class. You can download Montana’s Team Nutrition Program Recess Before Lunch Guide from the Montana Office of Public Instruction Web site (EDIT: This guide is no longer available).

  5. Include language about adequate time to eat in your district's wellness policy. Work together with the school wellness committee, parents, students, teachers, nurses, administrators, and others who share your concerns. The more of the school community that participates in decision-making, the more successful you will be.
Additional Ideas
  1. Prepackage healthy items into a grab-and-go full meal, in order to minimize the wait time on the meal line and increase consumption of healthy options. For example, package a vegetable and lean meat sandwich on whole wheat bread with orange slices. Create soup, salad, and potato bar options. Move some quick grab items, such as fruit and milk, to the snack counter or alternate serving point. Have a runner on the serving line to replenish depleted items.

  2. Calculate the optimal lunch period length for your school. To calculate a school meal period of appropriate length, add the traveling time (to and from the cafeteria) to the service or wait time, time at table (eating and socializing), and time returning trays for clean-up. Giving students at least 20 minutes after they are seated allows them time to finish their lunch. It also provides them with socialization time, which is important for students’ emotional and developmental needs and reduces chatter when they return to class.

  3. Consider adding extra food service lines, additional registers, or staggering lunch so they overlap in order to serve students more quickly and provide them with more time to eat their lunch. Additionally, reduced wait time in line can increase participation in the meal program.

  4. The recent passage of almost $11 billion in local bonds provides school boards the opportunity to address upgrades and the expansion to food service facilities. As school boards develop the capital improvement plans for schools, present the need for kitchens and dining area upgrades early in the planning process to ensure that food service needs are considered and evaluated along with all of the other needs of the school. A useful publication to refer to in this planning is the California Department of Education (CDE) publication, Healthy Children Ready to Learn, which can be accessed on the CDE School Facilities Publications Web page [].
Meal Time Resources and Information

Alliance for a Healthier Generation [] External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF)

California School Nutrition Association [] External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF)

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Nutrition Services Branch [] External link opens in new window or tab.

Questions:   Sandip Kaur | | 916-322-8316
Last Reviewed: Tuesday, May 14, 2019
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