At my school the kids get 20 minutes for lunch, which is bell-to-bell time. So lunch time includes waiting in line, getting your items, finding a seat, opening your food packages, EATING, throwing out your trash, and lining up to go back to class. If they don’t finish it all, they have to throw it away. Taking food back to the classroom is not allowed. I think kids get about 12-13 minutes to eat maximum if everything goes as planned. If their class is the last to get into line, well, they might have as little as 5 minutes sitting at the table.

Well, it just doesn’t seem like enough time to eat.

It’s hard enough for the teachers to grab a bite in 20 minutes. After taking the kids to the cafeteria, getting my meal together (using the microwave), chatting with a teacher, and using the bathroom, I might have about five minutes to eat.

Also the food prepared in the school cafeteria is very often meant to be eaten by hand. So that’s pretty easy to do in 5-10 minutes. It can’t be utensil-friendly fare if you only get a spork.

I personally can wolf down food when necessary, but I am an adult. Imagine a little person who maybe eats a little more slowly than an adult. Do they actually eat very much in 5 minutes?

I guess my wish is that all kids get 30 minutes to eat. Lunch is about learning too; it’s not just filling an empty stomach (and sometimes they don’t even have a chance to do that). Lunch is a break for students to chat with their friends in an informal setting. Learn about foods and enjoy eating.

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41 thoughts on “Time

  1. At our school it's very common for the kids to barely touch their food before they have to clean up and leave. For some of the 1st graders I've sat with there's not enough time for them to settle down and actually realize they have food in front of them.

  2. I think it's unreasonable and cruel to expect children to eat in that small an amount of time. It's one of many, many reasons I homeschool.

  3. 20 minutes bell-to-bell? For those in the front of the line. I wonder how many hours the school day has. I assume 7 hours. Something doesn't add up. The school should be able to fit 45 min-hour, bell-to-bell, for lunch. Elementary students don't eat quickly by any means. I wonder where the school's time is going? I can't comprehend why the time is so short…

    P.S. A photo-book in your future? I think I might smell one.

  4. Do the children have the option to bring their lunch? If so, where do they keep it and how do they go about picking it up and taking it to the lunchroom?

    I'm in Chicago and we are looking at Kindergartens now and I am FREAKED OUT about school lunches. Even our neighborhood school, which is supposedly one of the better ones, serves AWFUL food for lunch and breakfast.

  5. I have a class of 12 kids classified mentally retarded. There is no way they would ever be able to eat in 20 minutes (and administration wanted them to eat in 15 until we proved it was absolutely impossible). Do they only get 20 minutes for lunch because the other 20 are for recess? That's how it was at a school I student-taught at. Recess is important, but good (or even questionable) nutrition is important as well, especially since kids do get gym.

  6. When I was in school I'm pretty sure we had an hour for lunch. Time to eat and then the teachers kicked us out to go play in the playground. We also didn't have a cafeteria so it was lunches packed at home. I can't imagine only getting 20 minutes for lunch. That's just cruel.

  7. Wow! That just seems mean. How can they expect children to eat a meal in that short amount of time? I'm sure that the people who make that schedule get plenty of time to eat.

  8. Our school has a half hour of recess followed by 25 minutes for lunch (ie in at 12:00 out at 12:25.
    We have 5 lunch waves beginning at 11:30. Some waves have 3 classes per grade some 4. If they're hot lunch they go through the line, punch in their code and exit. Cold lunchers can sit down and dig in.
    Many kids don't eat or only take a few bites – hot AND cold lunchers. I can't force them, I can only encourage them to eat.
    While we would love to give them all the time they WANT to eat their lunch, we give them an adequate amount of time to do it. If you saw the amount of time they waste messing around with their food you'd be horrified.
    And for the record, "the people making the schedule" don't get more time, the get less because they're dealing with the kids we have to send to the office for misbehaving.

  9. Is this legal in your state? I know in my state at least, 30 minutes is the legal minimum for a meal break, and I think the requirement to offer a break is for any shift of 6 hours or more (which is why Shitty Retail Jobs with mean bosses often scheduled you for a 5.5 hour shift. Jerks.)

    I also remember that despite having 30 minute lunch shifts in school, the lunch lines were always so long that if you had to go through them – even just for milk – you were lucky to get 20 minutes to sit and eat. Middle school was the worst about this – the elementary schools had fewer kids (my town had i think 8 k-6 schools, two 7th/8th middle schools, and 2 9th-12th high schools), and the high schools had 3 different lines for different food options, but middle school had only one line for everything. 15 minutes at your table was a good day in middle school. if your class got there last, you'd be lucky to get 5.

  10. I read an article once espousing having recess first for a couple of reasons. Sometimes the kids are so anxious to get to play, they hardly eat and sometimes they just aren't hungry yet, but would be hungrier after a bit of exercise. Oh, and I'm guessing they would sit and eat better after having gotten their wiggles out.

  11. It would be wonderful if the students had longer to eat.

    In the school I work at, it is closer to 15 minutes – to get through the line, sit down, eat. Sad. But, there's a specific amount of instructional time required for the day, and to extend the school day for longer lunches would mean a longer day for teachers. They'd perhaps lobby for more pay (not all care as much about the meals as Mrs. Q), and that doesn't always work for districts that are already struggling for money.

    The lunchroom is also used for Physical Education space – so there limited time to set up and clean. Extending lunch time would affect that schedule too.

    Changes that might seem small can set off more than one realizes.

  12. Hi. I was really surprised to know that children at your school have only 20 minutes to eat lunch. I think here in Japan, the situation is much better. When I was an elementary school student, I had 50 minutes to eat. In Japan, school lunch is considered as a part of the education. So, students dish out from big pans and set the table for everyone. Including those preparing time, 50 mins works well.
    I luv American way, too. Cuz students can choose by themselves. However talking about meal time, 20 mins are too short and I worry about that.

  13. I'm confused…why aren't we talking about encouraging the kids to eat their lunch in the time given instead of moaning for more time? My school's kids have recess first, plenty of time to get "the wiggles out". Some of these kids you can give them 25 minutes or you can give them an hour and you're going to see the same results on their plates.

  14. I think I'm about the same age as Mrs. Q, and I remember not having enough time to eat lunch when I was a schoolkid. I'm sad to see the situation has only gotten WORSE (I always had 30 minutes for lunch, but that was still not enough time).

    And it's important to remember that lunch is also a time for kids to take a break and talk to their friends and unwind. I think that's important for their mental health, and that takes time too.

    Monica brings up that labor laws require employers to give hourly workers at least 30 minutes for lunch in a 6 hour shift. I bet there is no such law for schools. So it's pretty sad that places like Wal-Mart are required to treat their employees slightly better than elementary schools.

  15. When I was in Junior school (7-11) there was an hour allotted for the whole school (250 pupils)for 'lunch time'. Classes were seated in a rotating order, though the youngest two classes (1 and 2) always went first, so one week it would be 3,4,5,6,7,8 then the next 4,5,6,7,8,3 and so on. You were expected to play in the playground until you were called to eat and then again after you'd eaten, but barring the rota there was no time frame for eating – if you wanted to spend longer eating than the rest of your class, they didn't really mind as long as there was enough space for the next class. I may be making this up but I think they even kept kids behind who hadn't eaten enough to encourage them to eat a bit more.

    The fact that your students (in total) are allowed 20 minutes seems completely ludicrous to me. And as to those who suggest that lunch time is being spent on break times, we had a 6 hour day with a 15 minute break in the morning and a 10 minute break in the afternoon on top of our hour lunch break.

    (P.s, this is Anonymous in the UK, I thought you might want to know my name)

  16. Also, I managed to find the lunch menu for said school (I won't post the link for privacy reasons). There are 4 lunch menus rotated over 4 weeks at a cost of £2.17 a meal or £10.75 a week (I used to pay weekly). Each meal consists of either a meat or vegetarian main meal (for example, beef canneloni or vegetarian shepherd's pie) which in itself contains a mix of protein and carbs, then an additional starch and one or two vegetables with a fruit based pudding.

    One day a week is roast dinner, one day a week is normally some kind of 'foreign' food, like Stir Fry or Curry and one day a week is 'treat' food, like fish fingers (fish sticks)and chips and beans, and occasionally there is a treat pudding, like chocolate pudding or steamed pudding – one day I saw cheese and crackers! All of these days still stick to the same formula listed above, so over the week everything balances out.

  17. My 8 year old only gets around 20 minutes to eat also. If I did't pack his lunch for him he wouldn't have time to eat anything. Another problem is that they are late to the lunch room pretty often, usually because the teacher has to get the kids to settle down before she will allow them to walk down the hall. I don't blame the teacher, she's very good, I just wish other parents would teach their kids how to act in public and to respect their teachers. Last year, when my son was in first grade he had a hard time finishing his lunch in the 15-20 minutes he had, and I questioned him about whether or not he was talking and goofing around when he was supposed to be eating. He said he wasn't, and I talked to some of the ladies who volunteer in the lunch room and they said that he was trying to eat, but that there just wasn't much time. He has gotten faster at eating this year, so at least he is eating most of what I send with him. They also have snack time in class during the morning, not sure if most schools do this or not. I'm guessing it's because some of the kids don't eat breakfast and they can't concentrate.

  18. My son gets thirty minutes, start to finish. This includes five minutes of the prayer they say at the end of the meal. Sometimes, the teachers run late in getting them downstairs, but this doesn't give them extra time. Most kids brown bag, but there is hot lunch available four days a week. The school has no kitchen, so it's brought in and the teacher just goes and gets a stack for his or her class, so it's quicker.

    While helping with lunch, I've heard the kids being told that they'll have time to eat if they don't talk to each other. Now I know why my son barely eats- he hates being rushed. We made a deal where he has to eat the equivalent of a full meal at home before and after school, combined.

    It's a hard problem to solve, though, because it's already a long day and I'd rather any extra non-class minutes go to recess.

  19. i just found your blog (thanks bittman!) – so glad to have found it. i am a school counselor in brooklyn,ny and the school lunch thing is a something i feel passionate about changing. 20 minutes for lunch?! that's insanity. what intestinal problems are they creating in kids! it's so important to try and chew alot and eat slowly. eating quickly is a learned activity (i believe) and they need a bit more time so they don't have to wolf down their food.

    i'm going to have to catch up on some more of your old posts. i'm curious how different your school lunches are from ours. 90% of my students are eligible for free lunch and many of them spend the $50 for a bag of chips over the free lunch. pretty sad…(and a big waste of food/money no matter how bad the food is!

  20. Eating too fast is bad for digestion and can be stressful. Students don't need more stress, which itself can contribute to weakened immune system and obesity.

    I did a quick Google so that I could provide some more information to go with what was in my head and here are the first few results I got:




    Also: http://yourtotalhealth.ivillage.com/students-eating-too-fast.html

    Sure, some kids will spend most of the meal playing around than eating. I have no suggestion for that. I agree that lunch time is a time to unwind and that it's necessary for mental health, recess or no recess. I also think that meal time should encourage socialization as long as food gets eaten. (Of course, if they're not hungry there's only so much that can be done. Snack at the next recess?)

  21. My high school (ten years ago) only met the legal minimum of 20 minutes for lunch by counting in BOTH 4-minute passing periods. At one point I timed walking various distances through the school and timed it – even with empty halls, it tooks 5-6 minutes to walk from one end of the school to the other (where the cafeteria was). Add in packed hallways full of roving students and someone coming from the science wing to the cafeteria and then back to another science class would have had less than 15 minutes to eat – and that includes the time required to get the food, find a place to sit, etc.

  22. Short lunch periods are likely a significant factor in childhood obesity. These kids don't even have time for their bodies to register a feeling of satisfaction before it's time to pack up and leave. So sad.

  23. At my high school, we only had 20 minutes to eat. More often than not, I and other students would walk from the line straight to a trash can to throw our food away because time was up. The lines took so long that we usually didn't even get to sit down. By the way, we had three lunch times of twenty minutes (with one lunch line) for over 1200 students.

  24. The 20 minute time allowance is ridiculous, and it causes kids to shovel in their food … and often waste quite a bit of it. In my town, I worked on the Wellness Policy and was able to convince the elementary schools to offer recess BEFORE lunch. What this accomplished — based on USDA research — was a reduction in food waste because the kids were (a) hungrier and (b) not rushing to get out the door to play.
    This is not the case in middle school b/c the kids in my town sadly are not given recess at all during the day.

  25. My kids in middle school and high school only have 20 minutes to eat and no recess. Most of their teachers turn a blind eye and let them eat a snack in class as long as it is healthy and non-smelly.

  26. Whow, I've always had at least one hour. I've just asked and my mom told me we had two hours in primary school (it was in France by the way). I know the school hours are way different, usualy 8h30-11h30/13h30-16h30; but for me 20 min is almost just a recess!

  27. I have been babysitting my sisters 4 children for two weeks, 3 of which go to elementary school. The two weeks are winding down and probably 6 out of the ten days I open their lunch boxes, their sandwich and ofter one of their snacks are still in there. They assure me it's because they do not get enough time to eat. I threaten to only give them a sandwich,(because they always seem to have enough time to get their treat down), or to call their school and complain and they say 'please call our school. we need more time to eat.' Keep in mind the lunches they get are from home and not microwavable. Also, these kids eat EVERYTHING. I'm not even their parent and I am outraged that every day they come home hungry.

  28. Great post Ben. It’s a fascinating journey, to be sure, and I’ll be really interested to follow yours and see how you get on!

  29. I have a daughter in high school, they have 20 minutes for lunch bell to bell. Somedays her teacher is late getting them to the lunch room because they are working on something in class and then by the time they wait in a long long line they are out of time. Literally there are kids left in line when the bell rings for lunch to be over every day. She usually takes a small lunch in her book bag. To carry a lunch bag all day along with her heavy book bag would be too much. She comes home starving every single day of school. I think that the short amount of time that they give children for lunch is insanity I think they should have 20 minutes from the time they sit down with their food.

  30. My cousin is in high school and her lunch period is at 9:30 am because the school district population grew too fast for the school to accommodate all of the students. She has a regular 8-3 school day. This is completely unreasonable.

  31. I'm in high school now, and I get, and have always gotten, 45 minutes to eat. My elementary school alternated it, so that one day you ate first, and then had 45 minutes of recess, and the next day it was vice-versa. This allowed for less students to be in the cafeteria at once, and less students on the line waiting for food. 20 minutes is ridiculous, and I think in my state it's illegal for students to have less than 30 minutes to eat.

  32. I feel I am a bit late to your party here, but I just found your blog through yahoo and I am hooked! I worked as an assistant at a public school in Indianapolis, IN a few years ago, the students at that school were not even allowed to talk during lunch! It was an elementary school, and there was no talking in line or once they sat down. They even had assigned seats to discourage talking. I couldn't believe it! And of course as an assistant I had lunch duty everyday. I would see the younger kids 3 days a week and the older kids 2 days a week (we kept switching for some reason) and none of the students were allowed to talk, it was a school wide rule. Supposedly it was because the principal's office was right next to the cafeteria and she was doing "work", but from the poor results the school showed, she was probably in their reading or doing her nails. So not only were these kids getting crap for food, they had no social interaction with their peers. If they were caught talking they were sent to the corners where they had to eat their food standing up. Sometimes if all corners were filled, we started isolating the talkers in the hallways. These students did get a recess, but it was up to the teachers to take them outside when they had the time.

  33. I went to Catholic elementary school over 30 years ago. We had to bring our lunches; there were no school lunches. We were given slightly less than 1 hour for lunch, I think 55 minutes, which included recess. We were forced to finish our meals and go outside after 25 minutes. It is in school that I learned the terrible habit of gobbling my food down, because I had no choice. It has been a struggle ever since, and still I catch myself doing it.

    I think other countries are much more civilized than the US when it comes to eating in school. I think the school day should be lengthened to include proper food, mealtime, recess, and cleanup time.

    Thank you for your great work on this project.


  34. this is my first time reading your blogs, im in high school and we have alot of freedom in our school. we have 3 lunches and when the bell rings the students leave without having to be brought to lunch by a teacher and we leave when we finish eating. also i'd like to mention that as seniors you have the privlage of leaving to lunch 5 minutes early and eating out in the hall. although if you have 3rd lunch the pickings get really slim. but as a teacher you can cut in front of students already in line. i accually like the idea of the containers of food, more often than not you fine hair or other nasties in your food here. the plastic i think would eliminate that, though the viual appeal of the lunches at my school and yours rival each other. oh and we do have 30 minutes for eat lunch with 15 minutes between each lunch.

  35. In my K-12 district in a Chicagoland school I believe we had the same 20 minute lunch period. I don't recall feeling rushed to eat in elementary school, and perhaps that was because I was able to get some wiggle out during recess like another commenter mentioned.

    However, once I got to middle and high school recess was no longer a part of the day and 20 minutes to eat and run to class and make sure I had the correct textbooks and notebooks became more and more difficult. I usually avoided buying school food because it looked greasy and limp and it often was tasteless. However, on days when I did not have time to pack my own lunch I was forced to buy a slice of pizza or to go to a vending machine.

    I suppose it's bad enough to have a poor menu to choose from but I believe you're raising a very valid point here, Mrs. Q, in saying that 20 minutes is not enough time to eat and digest your food. Personally I think that 45 minutes would be more fair than 30 even because even with 30 minutes you can't expect a child to have ample time to eat after standing in a long line to purchase his/her food.

    And you're right about the time to chat with friends. Lunch time is one of the few times that students have to socialize during the day (outside of extracurricular activities) and I think that it is important to give students enough time to breathe, reflect, talk with a friend, and of course eat their lunch! Rushing a student through a lunch period can leave him/her still feeling rushed when he/she sits back down in class, not to mention distracted and not fully satisfied from a poor meal.

  36. 20 mins is absolutely not enough time for lunch. When I was in school we had an hour bell-to-bell for lunch and clean up and even at certain times that was not enough. We had lots of students, about 600-700 (middle school) and one lunch period per grade level. This was only 8 years ago and as far as I know this is the same today.

    It's almost disgusting that kids are expected to rush (putting their digestive health in danger) to eat. There seems to be a huge disconnect going on.

  37. I am a school teacher and while I also think school lunches should be healthier for students, more lunch time does not necessarily equate to better eating habits. This year we changed from 28 minute lunches to 45 minute lunches. Once the kids are done, they get restless. Most do not use the extra time as a study hall, they still wolf down their food, and fighting during lunch has increased significantly. I should also note that this is at a high school, there is no recess, or other organized activity for students to participate in once they have finished eating.

  38. How can we fight this!!!??? I’m serious! I just learned today that my kids have the same! My younger kids do, my middle schooler has longer! This is absolutely ridiculous!!! I’m already paranoid about my kids being at school all day and I seriously worry about them choking! Choking is pretty common….and even more so when you have to scarf down your food!!!! I’m disgusted and I’m seriously wanting to research this and see what I can do to get it changed!!! Or is it too late? Are schools really that big of “Drill camps” and have to spend every possible minute to LEARN LEARN LEARN! Makes me SICK!!!!!! I’ve about had it!

  39. im in highschool and this whole lunch situation is getting ridiculous. We origionally had 29 minutes for lunch, which was enough time to actually finish some of our food. But today they told us that they were cutting or time by 7 minutes by the bells. so now its down to 18 minutes “officially” but our lunchroom is in a different building all te way across campus, it takes about 5 minutes to walk there. so thats down to 13 minutes. and if you ordered a lunch or have a lunch to heat up in the microwave, the line will cost you another 5 minutes. so thats 8 minutesleft to eat.. and after that they send us straight back to class, where we get locked out and written a demerit if were late. completley unfair, especially since the teachers and faculty get 45 minutes to eat their lunches. it really shouldnt even be legal.

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