EdNews Parent expert and “renegade lunch lady” Ann Cooper responds to a question from Michelle in Boulder:

Q. My daughter is a slow eater and often doesn’t eat enough lunch with the time allowed. I pack her a lunch so that she doesn’t have to stand in line to buy it. I like that the school schedules recess before lunch so that the kids don’t rush eating to go outside, but it doesn’t seem to have helped my daughter much. I joined her one day to see what lunchtime was like and I didn’t finish my lunch either. Is there a reason it has to be so rushed?

A. Some of the challenges with getting our kids to eat healthy school lunch – or, frankly, any lunch – are the lack of time for lunch; the time of day that lunch is scheduled and how recess is scheduled.

If we want to truly change children’s relationship to food from a diet of highly processed food to eating fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, whole grains and healthy protein then we need to teach them to value “real” food and the socialization of the “table.” This means that we need to value “real” food, value the dining experience and value our time at the table.

The entire idea of valuing the act of eating together at a table as opposed to in a car, walking down the street or in front of a “blue-screen,” is seemingly antithetical to the dining experience in school cafeterias.  School lunch rooms are often multi-use facilities called “Cafetoriums” and are often extremely loud, have concrete walls and are often windowless.  To make matters even more difficult, the time of day and the amount of time allocated for this dining experience is anything but conducive to healthy eating.

For many reasons, none having to do with kids eating food, the time given over to eating has diminished over the years.  Most schools allocate 15 to 20 minutes for a child to come into the cafeteria, get into line, get their food, sit down, eat, “bus” their tray and leave.  On so many levels, this doesn’t make sense.  To exacerbate this untenable situation is the fact that as student bodies have grown and budgets shrunk, schools have decreased the size of their lunch rooms, which has resulted in “lunch” being served as early as 9:50 a.m. and as late as 1:50 p.m.  We all certainly know that 9:50 a.m. isn’t lunch time and, for young students starting their day at 8 a.m., that 1:50 p.m. is too long a spread to go without food.

The last issue that impacts student’s ability to learn is recess before lunch.  Most schools have recess after lunch, which means that students often eat a bite or two of food and throw the rest away so that they can go play.  Moving recess to before lunch, means that children play, get hungry, thirsty and burn off some energy before they come inside to eat and have nowhere to go after lunch except back to class, which means that they sit and eat until they’re done.

The reasons for this situation are many and varied and are often different from school to school.  Budgets, teacher’s schedules, and union contracts, often hold sway over what’s best for children during the lunch period.  Schools often feel that lunch time is not their responsibility or that it plays “second fiddle” to the academic curriculum.

At the end of the day, we need to value what, where and when our children eat as much as any other learning experience that happens during the school day.  Some may believe that reading, writing and arithmetic far outweigh school lunch in import, however, the only one of those things that a person will do numerous times a day for their entire lives is eating.

For another take on this question with detailed lunch tips, see this response including a video by EdNews Parent expert and nutritionist Julie Hammerstein.

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