Schools Need To Provide Sufficient Time To Eat And Socialize

August 30, 2002
University Park, Pa. Children may drive parents crazy dawdling over breakfast and dinner, but when it comes to eating lunch in school, the food generally disappears in 7 to10 minutes. Eating time, however, is not the only time students use during the lunch period, according to a study sponsored by the Applied Research Division of the National Food Service Management Institute.

Other food industries know how long it takes to eat, they know the turnover rates on their tables and how many people they can expect to feed in a certain amount of time, says Martha T. Conklin, associate professor in Penn State's School of Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Management and a registered dietitian. They use this information to predict revenue. Any restaurant knows the time it takes for the average customer.

However, school lunch providers did not know how long it took students to eat until three studies sponsored by NFSMI. The studies took place in Texas, New York, Washington and Utah, and included both urban and rural schools. The studies looked at six elementary schools, six middle schools and six high schools. All the schools participated in the National School Lunch Program and none of the schools used vendors, such as fast-food outlets, to provide lunches.

Schools built in the 1970s are now facing a baby boomlet that puts pressure on their ability to serve everyone lunch in a timely fashion. Add to that the ever-increasing practice of block scheduling that dumps schools full of students at the same time into cafeterias intended for staggered dining, and providing lunch for everyone becomes a problem. Not knowing how much time is necessary for student to enjoyably consume lunch simply adds to the problem.

The assumption has been that it takes longer for elementary school children to eat than for middle school children and that high school students take the least amount of time. However, no one had actually looked at the time it took.

Providing enough time for students to choose meals and sit with friends to enjoy them was among the top 10 factors identified by health professionals as important to the development of healthy eating behaviors, the researchers reported in their article in the latest issue of the Journal of Child Nutrition & Management. The authors were Conklin; Laurel G. Lambert, assistant professor School of Family and Consumer Sciences, University of Idaho; and Janet B. Anderson, clinical assistant professor, department of nutrition and food science, Utah State University.

If we knew how long it took for kids to eat, factored in the time in line and the time to get to the cafeteria with the time they need to socialize, it would help schools schedule a reasonable meal period, says Conklin.

The three studies were stopwatch time studies. Researchers observed students throughout the lunch period, timing the wait in serving lines including at the cashier, recording the time taken traveling to the eating area, sitting at the lunch tables and clearing tables. The students' time was divided between eating and non-eating activities. It took most students 7 to 10 minutes just to eat, but some of course finished sooner and others took longer. The average eating time was the same for all students regardless of grade.

Non-eating time at the table was not the same for all schools. The longer the lunch period, the more non-eating time recorded, but, of course these schools had more non-eating time available.

Socializing during lunch is a desirable activity and should be included in the time allotted. Socializing allows time for students to relate to others, provides a break in routine and allows students to return to afternoon classes refreshed. The trick is to find the optimum time for both eating and conversing with friends.

Perhaps if students were given at least a 20-minute period to sit at the table with their food, as recommended by food and nutrition professionals, both eating and socializing activities could be accommodated for the average individual, says Conklin.

Providing 20 minutes at table might not mean increasing the lunch period for schools that currently fall short; other approaches might help. Increasing or changing the number of serving lines and altering what is available on each line could decrease the time spent in line. Better efficiency in such things as replenishing food on the line, cashier duties and perhaps an automated point of sales system could also help.

Conklin also suggests that parents not be allowed to prepay lunches during the lunch hour and that adult school personnel not be allowed to break the line to get their food or pay for it. Both practices take time and decrease the efficiency of getting students through the lines to the tables.

"In some schools, students give up and go outside. They end up skipping lunch," says Conklin. The child nutrition community encourages children to eat lunch and consider it part of the educational day. Principals or other school planners need to ensure that sufficient time is available for students to enjoy a total dining experience.

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Dr. Conklin may be reached at 814-863-4847 or by e-mail at mtc11@psu.edu by email.