Sit down, be cool and eat your veggies

I always wondered if my joyless Grade 6 teacher Miss Bush (her real name) hated kids. 

 

Miss Bush, God rest her soul, was a simmering, old-school disciplinarian. She embarrassed students in front of their classmates. She blew her top illogically at the most unlikely targets. And she did everything possible to limit interaction between boys and girls. 

 

I’m sure trying to teach a class of 30 or so adolescents like me -- many of whom were experiencing bussing from the country to the city for the first time and interacting with town kids -- wasn’t (and still isn’t) easy. But she made it tougher than it needed to be.

 

One of her isms was total silence for the first part of lunch. She claimed neither your head nor your body would be right if you didn’t commit a specified amount of time – about 20 minutes, she figured – to nothing but eating. No cutting that time short to goof off or flirt. 

 

But did Miss Bush actually have a crystal ball? Nutritionally, maybe so. 

 

Researchers at the University of Illinois have just released a study showing that more time spent at the school lunch table increases kids’ likeliness of picking up healthy foods. 

 

Melissa Pflugh Prescott, assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, says longer school lunch breaks can help improve children’s nutrition and health. 

 

She says modern realities such as crowded schools mean students have an increasingly hard time trying to mow down lunch.

 

“Ten minutes of seated lunch time or less is quite common,” she says. “Scheduled lunch time may be longer, but students have to wait in line to get their food. And sometimes lunch periods are shared with recess. This means the amount of time children actually have to eat their meals is much less than the scheduled time.” 

 

Pflugh Prescott and her co-investigators looked specifically at fruit and vegetable consumption. Times have changed, but what’s remained consistent is the nutritional importance to young people of fruit and vegetables.

 

The researchers examined consumption during 10- and 20 minutes of seated lunch time. They say the results were clear.

 

“During shorter lunch periods, children ate significantly less of the fruit and vegetable parts of their meal, while there was no significant difference in the amount of beverages or entrees they consumed,” says Pflugh Prescott. “It makes sense that you might eat the part of the meal you look forward to first, and if there's enough time left you might go towards the other parts. But if there's not enough time, those items suffer, and they tend to be fruits and vegetables.”

 

Fruits were consumed at an overall higher rate than vegetables. But consumption of both food types was significantly higher for longer seated lunch times. 

 

The researchers say this particularly impacts children from low-income families who participate in the U.S. National School Lunch Program. They may not have resources to bring their own lunch from home to avoid lunch line wait times. 

 

So like Miss Bush, the researchers want “protected time” for students to eat, at least 20 minutes of seated lunch time at school. 

 

But that’s where their commonality with my Grade 6 teacher ends: The researchers say that if the seated kids are allowed to socialize from their desks, they accrue added benefits.

 

“The amount of seated time children have is a really valuable time for them to connect with their peers,” they say. “They might have limited opportunities to do so throughout the school day. We found significantly fewer social interactions during the 10-minute lunch times. That indicates other positive outcomes may come from longer lunch breaks as well.” 

 

Some measure of lunchroom decorum and respect is important. But so is talking to your Grade 6 crush…and maybe someday, once again sharing your carrot sticks.  

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Publish date: 
Thursday, September 23, 2021

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