How Long Does it Take Students to
A Summary of Three Studies
The Partnership to Promote Healthy Eating in Schools identified
an adequate time to eat lunch around midday as one of 10 factors associated
with developing healthy eating habits in school children. This article discusses
three studies sponsored by the National Food Service Management Institute (NFSMI)
to measure the average time required by K-12 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 foodservice 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.
In 2000, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and five
medical groups formed a unique partnership to address concerns about the increasing
incidence of childhood obesity in the United States. Realizing that dietary habits
are established early in life, this group of health professionals formed the Partnership
to Promote Healthy Eating in Schools and developed Prescription for Change:
Ten Keys to Promote Healthy Eating in Schools to guide school communities
in developing their own strategies to improve students' diet and health (American
Dietetic Association, 2000). Schools were targeted to teach by example in providing
nutritious food choices and dining experiences that promote the development of
healthy eating habits (Community Nutrition Institute, 2000).
The 10 keys to promote healthy eating addressed many of the challenges
students face in eating nutritious meals at school, including adequate time
to eat. According to the fifth key, "All students will have designated
lunch periods of sufficient length to enjoy eating healthy foods with friends.
These lunch periods will be scheduled as near the middle of the school day as
possible" (American Academy of Family Physicians et al., 2000). 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.
Three years prior to the work of the Partnership to Promote Healthy
Eating in Schools, researchers at the National Food Service Management Institute
(NFSMI) considered adequate eating time from the perspective of school foodservice
directors. Directors were on the firing line, dealing with the chaos that a
lunch period can bring to a school system that fails to consider mealtime as
an integral part of the academic day. School foodservice directors were asking,
"With increased enrollment in older buildings [that were] planned for half
the number of students, block scheduling, staff shortages, and increased demand
for more food choices, what evidence exists to help me make a case to school
administrators that the scheduled lunch period just isn't long enough to serve
everyone in a manner that promotes healthy eating?"
A place to start in making this case is to know exactly how long
it takes for students to consume their lunch. Unfortunately, at the time of
these studies, no information was available on the length of time the average
child takes to eat a noontime meal at school. If this information were known,
school foodservice directors could add other time factors associated with student
travel to the cafeteria (including service, conversing with friends, and cleanup)
in order to recommend a lunch period that meets the realistic needs of their
student population. The purpose of this article is to discuss the findings of
three studies sponsored by NFSMI to provide evidence of school lunch consumption
time by K-12 students.
Researchers from Texas Tech University developed the methodology
and conducted the first study (Sanchez, Hoover, & Sanchez, 1997). Scientists
at Central Washington University and Spectrum Consulting in Utah used the techniques
developed by Sanchez et al. to conduct two additional studies (Bergman, Buergel,
Joseph, & Sanchez, 1999; Rodgers, Anderson, & Shuster, 1999).
In all three studies, data were collected by means of a time
study based on multiple visits to schools in all divisions: elementary, middle,
and high school. Trained research assistants used stopwatches to record time.
They recorded data over 12- to 18-week periods. Research assistants observed
students at the beginning, middle, and end of the lunch periods. Students were
timed while in the serving lines, which included the cashier's stations, as
well as traveling to the eating area, sitting at their lunch tables, and while
carrying soiled trays to an area for clean-up. Time at the lunch table was divided
into eating and non-eating elements. Overall, the results of these studies represented
approximately 20,000 observations and timing of student behavior in five school
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
Participating School Nutrition Programs
Six elementary schools, six middle schools, and six
high schools participated in the three studies. The schools were located in five
school districts in four states: one district each in New York, Texas, and Washington,
and two districts in Utah. The number of students eating lunch varied considerably
(Table 1). All schools participated in the National
School Lunch Program, and the eligibility for free and reduced-price meals varied
from 26% to 93%.
Scheduled Lunch Periods
All elementary schools and middle schools had a
closed-campus policy, and all high schools reported an open campus policy. Lunch
periods varied in length and student release schedules. All elementary schools
scheduled recess after lunch with the exception of one (Table
As shown in Table 1,
the number of serving lines and the menu items offered on these lines differed.
Most elementary schools used automated meal count systems, such as debit cards
or PIN (personal identification number) entry to record sales. Middle schools
and high schools in many districts used an automated system for recording meal
counts and sales.
Time at the Table
The focus of this article is to answer the question,
"Once students arrive at a seat in the dining area with their food, how
long does it take to consume their meal?" This portion of the time studies
was called "time at table," which was the time available in the lunch
period for eating. Time at table was divided into two smaller elements: eating
and non-eating activities (organizing the eating area or socializing with friends).
Eating time was defined as the chewing of food and the drinking of beverages.
For example, if students started to talk with friends halfway through a sandwich,
the researchers halted the stopwatch that timed the eating element and resumed
timing only when students went back to eating or drinking (Sanchez, Hoover,
Cater, Sanchez, & Miller, 1999; Sanchez, Hoover, Sanchez, & Miller,
In all three studies, K-12 students spent more time eating
than in non-eating activities, except in Texas, where the lunch period was longer.
Average eating time for students in all grades ranged from 7 minutes in a middle
school in Utah to 10 minutes in an elementary school in Texas. As shown by the
dark blue segment of the bar chart in Figure 1,
the average eating time for all students, regardless of grade, was very consistent.
This was not the case for non-eating time at the table shown in the white segment
of the bar chart. Non-eating time changed in direct relation to the amount of
time allotted for the lunch period. Time spent at the table socializing with
peers or engaging in other non-eating activities averaged from 3 minutes in
a high school in Washington to 26 minutes in a high school in Texas.
Total Time in the Cafeteria
The average total time spent in the cafeteria for
service--including travel time to the table, time at the table, and bussing--was
20 minutes for elementary and middle schools and 24 minutes for the high schools,
even though students in one high school averaged slightly over 40 minutes in
the cafeteria (Figure 1). When the average time
at the table was compared to the average service and bussing times for all 18
schools, the time available for students to eat was 78% of the total time in
the cafeteria (Figure 2). This information is
reassuring because the main purpose for the lunch period (eating) encompassed
the majority of the time that was allotted. On average, service time varied
across all schools, and bussing of trays took minimal time.
CONCLUSIONS AND APPLICATIONS
How long did it take K-12 students to eat? School children
took an average of 7 to 10 minutes to consume their lunch. Some students, however,
required less time, while others needed more. Sanchez, Hoover, Sanchez, et al.
(1999) reported that 39%, 27%, and 20% of students in elementary, middle, and
high schools, respectively, took longer than 10 minutes to consume their lunch.
We suggest school foodservice directors read the research articles generated by
these studies to consider the entire spectrum of data collected (Bergman et al.,
2000; Sanchez, Hoover, Sanchez, et al., 1999). In school districts where the scheduled
lunch period is a contested issue, the only way school foodservice directors could
know precisely whether this average reflects students in their program is to conduct
a time study using similar methods. The procedures to follow for conducting such
a time study have been published (Sanchez, Hoover, Cater, et al., 1999).
Eating time encompasses only the physical act of eating
and drinking. This time did not seem to relate to the age of students, size
of the school district, complexity of the menu, length of the lunch period,
serving styles, holding students at the table, or scheduling recess prior to
the meal period (Table 1). An earlier study found
that the timing of recess was associated with reduced plate waste, particularly
with boys, when physical activities were scheduled prior to lunch (Getlinger,
Laughlin, Bell, Akre, & Arjmandi, 1996). As shown in Figure
1, the researchers found that in one elementary school (EUT1) that scheduled
recess prior to lunch, the averaged the same amount of time to eat. Because
the time studies did not record plate waste, we can only assume students may
have eaten more in the same amount of time, or the timing of recess may not
have made a difference in consumption patterns with this group of elementary
Non-eating or socializing at the table was the most variable
time among the schools, and not surprisingly, the amount of time spent in these
activities seemed to change directly with the length of the lunch period. These
acts included arranging the tray or food, eating, talking, laughing, and other
types of social interaction with friends at the table. School foodservice directors
could minimize the time used by students in arranging the food for eating by
evaluating the manner in which condiments are packaged for ease of use. This
would be especially important for elementary students (Sanchez, Hoover, Sanchez,
et al., 1999).
Socializing is an important aspect of dining because allowing
students sufficient time to relate to others provides a break in routine and
refreshes them for afternoon classes. This may be the reason why members of
the Partnership to Promote Healthy Eating in Schools mentioned the importance
of enjoying meals with friends as a vital component of healthy eating (American
Academy of Family Physicians et al., 2000). Perhaps if students were given at
least a 20-minute period at the table, as recommended by food and nutrition
professionals (USDA, 2000), both eating and socializing activities could be
accommodated for the average individual.
If 20 minutes at the table were the goal, then school foodservice
directors would need to factor in the following: average travel time to the
cafeteria; time for service, including travel to the eating area; and bussing
of trays after the meal to yield an ideal lunch period. The service aspect is
the one element a school foodservice director can most directly influence. In
this research, the bussing of trays consistently averaged under one minute,
even for elementary students, but the average service time per student varied
from approximately three minutes to slightly over eight minutes (Figure
1). Among the factors that positively influence service time are:
- the number of serving lines;
- whether all food choices are available on each line;
- training of service staff and cashiers to provide efficient
- the designation of a "runner" to replenish
food on the line (Nettles & Conklin, 1996); and
an automated point of sales system.
School foodservice directors should carefully review each
of these areas to determine whether service efficiency could be improved, especially
if doing so will enable students to enjoy their lunch for at least 20 minutes
at the table.
If 20 minutes at the table represents 78% of the meal period
(Figure 2), a goal for the entire time students
spend in the cafeteria would be at least 26 minutes. This would allow four minutes
for travel to and from the cafeteria in a 30-minute lunch period. Although this
calculation is based strictly on averages, a school foodservice director could
use this type of logic in documenting an ideal lunch period with school administrators.
This research was sponsored by the National Food Service Management
Institute, Applied Research Division, The University of Southern Mississippi,
with headquarters at The University of Mississippi. Funding for the Institute
has been provided with federal funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA),
Food and Nutrition Service, to The University of Mississippi. The contents of
this publication do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The University
of Mississippi or the USDA, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products,
or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. government.
American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of
Pediatrics, American Dietetic Association, National Hispanic Medical Association,
National Medical Association, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). (2000). Prescription
for change: Ten keys to promote healthy eating in schools. In USDA Food and Nutrition
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A. (1999). Time required for schoolchildren to eat lunch. Unpublished
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Martha T. Conklin is associate professor, School
of Hotel, Restaurant, and Recreation Management, The Pennsylvania State University,
University Park, PA, and former director, National Food Service Management Institute,
Applied Research Division, The University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg,
MS. Laurel G. Lambert is assistant professor, School of Family and Consumer
Sciences, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID, and former research assistant, National
Food Service Management Institute, Applied Research Division, The University of
Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, MS. Janet B. Anderson is clinical assistant
professor, Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences, Utah State University, Logan,