A recent post on Facebook revealed a person’s dismay over her child not having enough time to eat lunch in school. Many people chimed in (including yours truly) to concur with the poster and add their own stories. Mine was that on many days my son comes home with part of his lunch uneaten in the lunchbox. The reason he gives is always the same – there wasn’t enough time to finish eating. It did bother me when he used to tell me this, but the Facebook post got me thinking more deeply about the situation.
During my years as a school teacher and administrator, I spent enough time in school lunchrooms. One thing I noted was that kids spend two thirds of their lunch period talking. That is a good thing – a very good thing – because socialization should be part of the lunch period. It gives kids a place free from the constraints of the classroom to interact, and that is essential. Students need to be able to talk, laugh, and let off some steam during their lunch period.
The problem is when a lunch period is too short. In some of the cases reported in the Facebook post, parents noted that their children got fifteen or twenty minutes for lunch. Based on my experience, that is not enough time for the kids to converse and eat. Some kids are slow eaters and talking will slow them down even more. Even the fast eaters will find fifteen or twenty minutes is not enough time to eat and socialize.
The ideal time for a lunch period is 30 minutes, with an additional 30 minutes allotted for outdoor recess. While I can understand why some schools are trying to cut the minutes to add more instruction, the outdoor recess is just as necessary as the lunch period. Students are sedentary during the school day, mostly sitting at a desk or in front of a computer. They need to get outside in the fresh air, throw a ball, and run around the schoolyard.
What is being served for lunch can also be a problem. Due to the limitations of some school lunch menus, parents – myself included – are forced to make lunch on more days than not. Most of the time this is because of a lack of healthy choices on the school menu. My son usually buys lunch one or two days a week because the choices on those other days are not even satisfactory.
School lunches tend to resemble fast food selections that kids love – burgers, French fries, fried chicken, chicken nuggets, and pizza. Unfortunately, these things are high in fat and sodium, not what many parents want their kids consuming. I will allow him to get a school lunch that is healthy – like on taco day when he can add grilled chicken, cheese, and lettuce to his taco.
Another problem even with a healthy choice like the taco is that kids have to wait on line to get their lunches. After queuing for ten minutes, by the time they sit down at their tables to eat that would leave only five minutes in a fifteen-minute lunch period or ten minutes during a twenty-minute lunch period.
The overriding issue is the way Americans perceive lunch and eating in general – as something to get done quickly. The whole notion of “fast food” arose from this mentality. Eating quickly is the antithesis of eating healthy. Food is one of life’s pleasures and should be consumed at a pace that allows a person to enjoy it fully.
Having traveled to many other countries over the years, I have witnessed the difference in people’s eating habits. In many of these places lunch is not seen as something to get done quickly, but rather something to enjoy at a leisurely pace, and it usually involves other people. American’s tend to eat alone and fast during some or all meals, but lunch seems particularly rushed because everyone feels a need to get back to the office – except the growing number of individuals who eat at their desks because there is not enough time to go out for lunch.
I did a little research into school lunches in other countries, and it is really astounding how different they are from the unhealthy American school lunches. Not only are there better choices – whole grain breads, not fried proteins like lean chicken and fish, and more offerings of fruits and vegetables – but lunch is viewed as a time to be appreciated and not rushed through.
A really interesting case involves school lunches in Japan. In the video (see below article) you will see how school lunches involve the students not just as consumers but as preparers of the daily feast. For some of the selections the students even use vegetables from the school garden in their menus. The students learn about the nutritional value of the foods they are preparing; they actually make the food themselves, and later they even clean the cafeteria.
While this may seem excessive to some Americans, the reality is that these Japanese school lunch periods are lessons in and of themselves. The whole notion of getting lunch over with quickly is dispatched, and the students are involved in the entire process. They are not only eating healthy foods but they are learning skills that they will use when they are adults.
Many Americans have a love-hate relationship with food, no doubt stemming from the school lunches they ate as kids. The “eat fast” or “fast food” mentality is extremely unhealthy, and it is time that we start examining not just what we eat but how we eat. In that contemplation we will see that the process of eating has been rendered not enjoyable in many situations, and that has to change from Kindergarten up to the corporate level.
As for now, parents must make a stand and insist that change comes to their schools in how lunch and recess are handled. They need to let schools know that they expect students to have sufficient time to eat and play during each school day. These times are just as important to children’s overall scholastic experience as math, ELA, science, and history.
School lunch menus need to provide daily healthy choices, but there also has to be enough time provided for the students to savor that food and engage in conversations with their classmates. In this way lunch periods can be seen as moments that promote socialization and well-being, and there is something of great educative value in this – teaching kids a lesson that will last a lifetime.