The National School Lunch Program feeds millions of school children in the US every day.
The research team, from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, MA, set out to find if the time children had for their lunch affected the food choices they made and how much they consumed.
Senior author Eric Rimm, professor of epidemiology and nutrition, says that "every school day the National School Lunch Program helps to feed over 30 million children in 100,000 schools across the US, yet little research has been done in this field."
Just over 1,000 students from six elementary and middle schools took part in the study, all of whom had lunch periods ranging from 20-30 minutes. They all came from a low-income urban school district in Massachusetts - an important factor since students from low-income families get nearly half their daily nutritional requirement from their school meals.
The researchers found that children who had less than 20 minutes to eat their meal in a lunch period not only ate less, but they ate less healthily.
Rather than finishing part of the meal and leaving the rest, the team found students with less time made a start on their entrée, vegetables and milk - but finished nothing. Children with less time got through 13% less of their entrées, 12% less of their vegetables and 10% less of their milk.
Commenting on their findings, Rimm says:
"We were surprised by some of the results because I expected that with less time children may quickly eat their entrée and drink their milk but throw away all of their fruits and vegetables. Not so, we found they got a start on everything, but couldn't come close to finishing with less time to eat."
Students with more time to eat were more likely to choose fruit
The research also found that when it came to picking a piece of fruit, the rushed group made a fruit selection 44% of the time compared with those with more time to eat, who made a fruit selection 57% of the time.
While federal guidelines were recently issued on the nutritional quality of the meals provided, there are currently no standards on the length of the lunch period.
Making lunch periods longer is not always feasible, so the answer, according to the researchers, is for schools to look at ways to get students to their meal on time and through the lunch lines more quickly; having arrived late or stood in a serving line, some students had only 10 minutes at the table.
"Increasing the number of serving lines, more efficient cashiers, and/or an automated point of sale system can all lead to enhanced efficiency for students going through lunch lines," says lead investigator Juliana Cohen, adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition.
Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on how chefs in school kitchens may encourage healthy eating.
Written by Jonathan Vernon