The Too-Short School Lunch Period: What Can Parents Do?

One of The Lunch Tray’s most popular guest posts ever, entitled “The Incredible Shrinking Lunch Period,” was written back in 2011 by Chris Liebig, a law professor who also blogs about Iowa City schools.  In that post, Chris described the ridiculously short period of time allotted for lunch in his district and unfortunately he couldn’t end the piece on an optimistic note:

I wish there were a happy ending to this story.  But after listening sympathetically to our concerns, the superintendent issued a new policy: henceforth, the kids would have “no less than fifteen minutes” to eat — which in practice has meant that kids still sometimes end up with only ten minutes.  Oh, and kids would no longer be made to wear their winter clothes to lunch — the time for getting dressed would be taken out of their recess instead.  Meanwhile, the superintendent argued that the best solution would be to lengthen the school day.

Many school districts, feeling the intense pressure created by standardized testing, continue to shortchange students when it comes to giving them adequate time to eat.

Recently I was contacted by Rainey Wikstrom, a school wellness consultant in Colorado, and when she and I got to talking via email about this same issue, I asked her if I could interview her for TLT.  As you’ll read below, Rainey does believe that parents can make a difference, but it takes collective will and a lot of persistence.  Here’s our Q&A:

TLT:  Tell us your biggest concern(s) about the lack of sufficient time for kids to eat lunch each day.

RW:  Kids who aren’t given adequate time to eat lunch, often go hungry.  School lunchrooms can be among the most unpleasant places to spend one’s time for a variety of reasons.  Kids are often herded into the cafeteria like cattle, refused water from the nearby fountain, told to not socialize, and subjected to whistles, flashing lights–in often congested and windowless environments.  Sound like fun?

Adding insult to injury is that many kids will have seven minutes or less to consume their lunch, making for garbage bins filled with uneaten food and rumbling tummies headed back to their classrooms.  I have a vision that all schools will provide adequate time for students to consume their meals while socializing in a pleasant environment that is conducive to a pleasant and satisfying eating experience.  When students are nourished, they are better able to perform well in school–and in life.

 TLT:  What are some of the horror stories you’ve seen or heard about due to too-short lunch periods?

Rainey Wikstrom
Rainey Wikstrom

RW:  One staff member in a school told me about a little second grade girl who had just sat down and was taking her first bite of food, when the lunchroom monitor called out, “Everyone take your last bite.  It’s time to go!”  This little girl put down her fork in defeat, stood up and dumped her entire tray in the trash. We need to send the message to kids that mealtime is an important time to refuel their bodies– and minds and that we value them enough to ensure they receive adequate time to do so.

 TLT:  Have you tried to change the system and, if so, what obstacles have you encountered?

RW:  Yes, I talk to anyone who will listen.  Food Services Directors would LOVE to see kids have more time, but they have no control over the school schedule.  School districts would like to see kids have more time for lunch but are pressed to meet testing objectives, and therefore have weighted core subject areas with a higher time priority.  Additionally, there may be costs associated with adding supervision time when lunches are lengthened.  By expanding the school lunch period, schools would have to address these concerns. Additionally, some cafeterias are smaller than other, making congestion and scheduling more challenging. These are a few of the barriers– but all can be overcome.

TLT: What do you think it will take to get longer lunch times for students?

RW:  Parents and students have the power to make a difference in this area.  Parents and students are the customers of schools and therefore have the most powerful voices to influence changes.  If parents really knew what is happening in their schools, many would be outraged and take action.  It only takes a few parents to begin a movement.

TLT:  So what should concerned parents do?

RW:   Visit your child for lunch and find out what is happening in your school.  Time the meal service and evaluate the situation. Invite other parents to join you.  If the lunch period needs lengthening, begin by  sharing your vision of a longer lunch period with the principal, school board, school food director and other parents.  Share a vision of a positive meal experience with adequate time for socialization in a pleasant environment. Don’t take no for an answer and absolutely never give up.  If your school is already doing well in this area, express your gratitude to the principal and school board for making mealtime a priority.

TLT:  Is there anything else you’d like to share with Lunch Tray readers on this topic?

RW:  Parents often underestimate their power to make a difference.  Parents (and students) are customers of schools and hold tremendous power to influence school policies and practices. Begin by having conversations and discussing solutions.  People will often run from a problem but get behind a vision.  Create the vision of what it is you’d like to see and share that vision.  Together, we can make a positive difference for kids everywhere.

* * *

Thanks to Rainey for letting me share this interview.  Do your own kids have adequate time to eat in their schools?  Have you ever tried to tackle this issue in your school or district and, if so, what was the outcome?  Let us know in a comment below.

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  1. says

    I do think some consideration needs to be made for school districts: there are only so many hours in the day. To make lunch longer, something else has to be shorter – or the school day needs to be lengthened. Most states have requirements about instructional time that can’t be changed at a district level.

    I, for one, think that a longer school day = more time for lunch is a completely reasonable option, and significantly better than reducing recess. Parent advocates need to be careful that they aren’t asking their school districts to make impossible choices.

    • says

      School Districts ARE in a difficult position. However, when adequate lunch becomes ‘impossible’ so does learning.

      Parents are just the advocates we need to help school districts identify their priorities–and the thoughtful attention to children’s needs IS a priority.

      Thank you for your comments.

  2. Maggie says

    “These are a few of the barriers– but all can be overcome.”

    Any particulars on how to overcome those barriers? Any success stories/examples about how this – longer meals, better atmosphere, etc. – has been accomplished?

    • says

      A willing an interested principal can make all the difference. I know of a principal in Colorado who designed the school schedule to ensure students received enough time to eat. He timed the lunches to ensure that all students (whether at the start of the line or the finish) were receiving enough time to consume their meal.

      Another way to bring attention to this matter is to offer to do a plate waste study. This would measure the amount of waste. There are online tools to help with this process. Additionally, Jamie Oliver offers a school lunchroom audit on his website which is another angle for parents. I would love to hear other ideas too.

      • Maggie says

        Thanks for the response. In some ways, it sounds like it should be such a simple thing.

        I do agree that any changes will need to come from administration level (might need to be even higher up the chain than the building principal in districts with multiple schools). Bus schedules need to be considered if school day length changes, more dollars for staff for supervision in the cafeteria for longer meals periods, class schedule changes if the cafeteria is a multi-purpose room…there can be quite a domino effect involved.

        My personal feeling is that administrators might look at the meal times mainly from the aspect of behavior issues, “crowd control” and such, not thinking of the aspects of nutrition and nutrition education or things like mealtime manners and social skills education that we’d like to consider.

        I do wonder of plate waste would sway opinion or not?

  3. mommm!!!! says

    I have given up and left the confines of the brick and mortar school system. My child was expected to start school at 7:30 am, but wait until 1:30 pm to eat “lunch” in the space of 15 minutes. Since this is the last lunch session, the cafeteria would often be out of most of the foods items they offered by that time, leaving his choices limited to nachos (reads chips with a cheese like product goo) or lettuce from the salad bar.

    I had been packing his lunch, until another child decided to toss my child’s lunch equipment into the dumpster. Long story short, the administration was less than helpful, and that’s being polite. I couldn’t afford to replace his lunch equipment, so I bit the bullet and went for the school lunch. What a nightmare. His grades deteriorated, his attitude changed, and all this at the onset of a growth spurt.

    We left. At least now, my child can eat a leisurely breakfast, a home cooked lunch. And I’m not stressed every night at dinner. And his grades are up.


  4. says

    The descriptions above sound like prison. We had an hour for lunch when I was a child in the 1970s and 1980s. From reconnecting with old school mates on Facebook, most of us turned out quite well. All the testing, and higher standards doesn’t seem to be having the intended effect.

    • says

      Some school cafeterias could be easily mistaken for ‘prisons’. I’ve noticed that ‘prison-like’ cafeterias are more common in school districts where parents are less involved. Be an involved parent and find out what is working well and where you might support positive changes.

  5. Jamie says

    What do you think is a reasonable amount of time for lunch? Is a half hour enough? I believe my daughter is suppose to get a half hour, but now I’m curious if she really gets this long. I know that they have to put their coats and stuff on before lunch because they go straight to recess. I think I will make plans to go eat lunch with her one day soon.

    • says

      The USDA recommends 20 minutes of seated time for lunch. This is after students have received their meal and are seated. Some schools are already doing this well. It’s a great idea to find out where your school stands on time. When time is short, the food service staff is often called upon to move more quickly. In some cases, there may be ways to speed up the lines. In general, the lack of time comes from a lack of total time designated for lunch. Thank you for looking into your lunch times. We need more parents to do this.

  6. garyC says

    | ” It’s not polite to say it.
    We all tiptoe around this truth, that school is prison, because telling the truth makes us all seem so mean.
    How could all these nice people be sending their children to prison for a good share of their lives ?

    How could our democratic government, founded on principles of freedom and self-determination, make laws requiring children and adolescents to spend a good portion of their days in prison ? It’s unthinkable, and so we try hard to avoid thinking it.
    Or, if we think it, we at least don’t say it.
    When we talk about what’s wrong with schools we pretend not to see the elephant, and we talk instead about some of the ridiculous dander that’s gathered around the elephant’s periphery. { 10-minute Lunch}

    At some level of their consciousness, everyone who has ever been to school knows that it is prison. How could they not know ?
    But people rationalize it by saying {in effect} that children need this particular kind of prison and may even like it if the prison is run well… ” |

    {.. if the prison is not run well, lobbying the wardens is the standard recommendation}

    — Professor Peter Gray, Boston College;
    Psychology Today magazine excerpt

  7. says

    My $0.02 on this:

    I no longer directly have a dog in this hunt, since Son graduated almost a decade ago. However, as a former student (and father of a former student) who went though compressed lunch period (both at school and also on the job), I do have one observation to make:

    Not only does a too-short lunch period result in food waste and hungry students, but it also may contribute to the “obesity epidemic”, as children learn to “shovel it in”. This habit leads to eating too much, too fast – which can not only cause digestive troubles, but it can also lead to eating too much, as the children eat a lot quickly, before the “I have had enough” response has a chance to kick in. Also, certain foods are more amenable to this type of eating (fast and processed foods come to mind.)


  8. says

    Hi Ed,

    Thanks for your comments. I couldn’t agree more. I am witnessing some wonderful changes in some school cafeterias, where over 90% of school meals are freshly prepared from ‘scratch’ and whole ingredients. While this is happening-we remain stuck in an institutionalized ‘fast food’ serving model that is likely thickening children’s waistlines and sending the wrong message to kids.


    Rainey Wikstrom

  9. says

    As an advocacy agency we have worked with many school districts on this very issue. Even had some district wide policies put in place that requires schools to ensure the last student in line has 20 minutes to eat. However, the principals run the schools and so it’s up to them to implement this policy, change bell schedules, etc., and with no repercussions to not doing it, there hasn’t been much movement. It’s very frustrating to see hungry kids wait in line for most of their lunch period just to have to toss it all. I don’t understand why it’s so difficult for school administrators to understand that a hungry child or student can’t learn.

  10. Denise says

    As a parent 1st and head cook for the last 20 years, I do have some insight on some of the problems.
    I really get frustrated about being blamed for childrens obesity. There are so many factors in why this is a problem.
    You can’t learn with an empty stomach. If you are learning to eat with the hurry up and eat mentality and are only served fast foods, because of staffing and lack of trained people who can really cook foods from scratch can be an issue.
    Also when you do offer the fruits and vegetables, kids don’t take them as readily as they should because I do believe they eat what they eat and are offered at home. If they eat out at fast food restaurants alot and are not offered fresh fruits and veg at home, they won’t take them at school either. Take a look at their parents, and if they are overweight, then there kids most likely will be too.
    They are not learning good food choices.
    The length of their lunch periods do play a part too, but everyone in the district has to be concerned and make it a prioity.
    I could go on and on. Parents do make a difference and should step up and have a voice to try and make a change.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Denise: I agree that you can’t lay all these problems at the school’s door – there are many, many factors at play. Thank you for sharing your perspective here!

    • says

      Hi Denise,

      You bring up excellent points. You’ve inspired me to make a list of ways that parents might make a difference in this area. Please feel free (anyone and everyone) to help expand this list:

      How parents can help:

      1) Befriend your food service staff
      2) Have lunch at your child’s school. Time the length of seated time students at the front and the back of the line receive.
      3) If seated time is at least 20 minutes, be sure to thank your principal, administrators for making/keeping this a priority
      4) If there is less than 20 minutes, invite other parents to join you for lunch and see if for themselves.
      5) Invite the food service director to a meeting to share your concerns and ask for guidance. Although the food service director likely has no control over the cafeteria time allotment, he/she might be able to point to other barriers that make lengthening the lunch difficult (ratio of students:cafeteria size etc., budget for labor)
      6) Schedule a meeting with the school principal and share your concerns and ask how you might help to arrive at a solution. Your principal may have barriers of their own and need advocacy from parents to the school board, to change things. Allow him/her to guide your team.
      7) If the principal is unable to offer suggestions, schedule a presentation before the school board. Bring your documentation and other parents to share your concerns.

      Other: Per Denise, expose children to fresh and healthy foods at home to make the school offerings, just an extension of what happens at home. More kids will likely consume the healthy foods at school, when they see them at home.

      Please feel free to add suggestions as to how parents might help make a difference in this area…..

  11. Yuhua says

    My daughter (8 yr-old, 3rd grade) has only 20 min lunch time, TOTAL.

    I shared my concern with the principle and she replied that it’s enough for “very focused eaters”. So it is kids whom to blame. I don’t buy her argument and will take further actions to advocate for more eating time.

    I found this article and comments very useful. I will not be able to eat lunch with my kid since the school is too far away, but I’m going to share the concern with other parents and ask the caring parents to encourage their kids to record the actual seating time everyday. We will collect the data over a month and show it to the principle and the district.

    Many thanks to the author and those who commented.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Yuhua: I’m glad you found Chris’s post helpful and good luck with your research. It’s great that you’re being proactive about this problem.

  12. Stephanie says

    I’m a junior in high school, and technically we get 30 minutes of lunch but that includes the time in the hallways (to and from) as well as waiting in the line. Most of us only get about 10 minutes to eat, and the food is worse than fast food. I’ve found hairs in it before, and literally everything is artificial. Sick of this.

  13. says

    Hello Stephanie,

    Thank your taking the time to respond to this article. I understand the ‘junior year’ is very busy and I’m impressed that you are taking the time to speak about/out about something that concerns you. We need students like you to advocate for the changes you wish to see. Students have a powerful voice to influence change. I’ve witness students advocate for changes and make it happen. Have you thought taking these steps? The key here is to share your vision for what you’d like to see (rather than pointing to all of the problems). Your food service will likely be willing to bring in more fresh foods and try more freshly prepared menu items if they know that a team of students are supporting these changes. Remember a ‘team’ of students can be you and one other student:)

  14. Victoria says

    Mt lunch period is 19 minutes long, 23 if you include the passing period before lunch. I had to start bringing my own lunch from home because whenever I got school lunch, I often had less than five minutes to eat. I tried to bring up the subject with my parents, but I was told that if I didn’t spend so much time “loitering in the hallway with my friends”, I would have plenty of time. My class before lunch is one the second floor and on the other side of the school. This is beginning to be a problem.


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