Here’s A Way To Get Kids To Eat A Healthier Lunch

The Lempert Report
July 19, 2021

School-age children ate more fruits and vegetables when they had to sit at the lunch table for 20 minutes versus half that long.

Remember when you were a kid and your mom told you to sit at the dining room table and finish your plate? Looks like mom was right.  While this study is small, with only 38 children ages 8-14 participating at an Illinois summer camp, those with the 20-minute requirement ate 84.2% of the fruits and 65.3% of the vegetables served to them, compared with 72.9% and 51.2%, respectively, among those who were required to stay seated for just 10 minutes, according to Melissa Pflugh Prescott, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. These differences -- 11.3 percentage points for fruits and 14.1 points for vegetables -- were both statistically and nutritionally significant, the researchers reported in JAMA Network Open. They equated to nearly 10 extra grams each for fruits and vegetables per lunch.

Consumption of entrees and drinks (water and milk were the only ones provided), on the other hand, did not differ significantly between seating conditions, though there were trends toward increased intake of these as well with the 20-minute requirement. Overall, the 20-minute seating was associated with increased mean consumption of all individual nutrient types -- calories, fats, carbohydrates, fiber, protein, vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and iron -- for the point estimates. These were statistically significant for total calories, carbs, fiber, protein, iron, and potassium. The findings aren't a big surprise, as a number of observational studies had also linked lunch seating time to the amount of food consumed. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC recommend at least 20 minutes of seated lunch time. Called "Time for Lunch," the study used a cross-over design to expose participants to both seating requirement conditions an equal number of times. Five different food assortments were offered during the 4-week study, each available four times, randomized to the 10- or 20-minute seating requirement such that each appeared twice during each condition. Children, whose mean age was about 12 (SD 1.2), could then select the foods they wanted from these menus.

The research team also kept watch on participants during lunch, tracking how often they stood up, talked with other children, used their phones, and when they left the table. Children were asked to rate their meals as well. When required to stay seated for 20 minutes, "talking ratings" were more than one-third higher than with the 10-minute mandate, but phone use did not differ significantly.