Lunch break: How to encourage healthy eating habits for time-crunched kids

Since chewing and chatting aren’t polite bedfellows, Portland schoolchildren are faced with a serious dilemma during their brief, 20-minute lunch period: eat or talk.

“In a perfect world, we’d have 20-30 minutes dedicated to each meal, ideally free of distractions,” says Stephanie Kaatz, registered dietitian at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. “But in schools, [lunchtime] is also the kids’ free time to socialize with their friends, which can definitely lead to speed-eating or eating less of their lunches.”

According to Kaatz, school-age children are at critical stages of mind-body growth and require energy to focus – energy derived from a balanced midday meal that many children choose to skip.

“Over time, skipping meals or eating less of a meal could lead to overeating later on in the day,” she says. “Or if they are hungry and choose to socialize instead, they may start to lose the cues for hunger and their body won’t recognize them later on, which can lead to slower metabolism.”

To learn more about your child’s nutritional needs, talk to their pediatrician or contact OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital at 503-346-0640.

She also debunks the notion that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

“Every meal helps us get to that next stage of whatever our day is,” she says. “It’s the regular eating pattern and the nutritional value of our food that’s most important.”

To ensure that both meal scrimpers and speed eaters get the nutrients they need, Kaatz recommends three helpful tips:

  • Set a good example at home by using the My Plate model, which teaches kids that a healthy meal should be 50 percent fruits and veggies, 25 percent whole grains, and 25 percent lean protein.
  • Let kids help pack their own lunches using that model. When children are allowed to pick out foods they actually like, they’ll often eat more at lunchtime.
  • Ponder packaging: Will your kid really take the time to peel that orange or to pry open that tight Tupperware? “If parents are packing lunches for their kids, make sure that the packaging is easy to open,” she says. “If it’s not, chances are they’re going to choose socializing over the struggle.”


This article was written by Nina Silberstein and originally appeared in the Portland Monthly 2019 Kids’ Health Annual magazine.