Younger Elementary School Students Waste More School Lunch Foods than Older Elementary School Students

Published:December 20, 2016DOI:



      Children may not receive nutritional benefits from school lunch meals if they do not eat the foods served.


      This study investigated whether there were differences in school lunch foods consumed and wasted by grade level of elementary school students.


      In this cross-sectional study, anonymous meal observations were conducted after students selected their reimbursable school lunch meals in the cafeteria lunch line. The amounts of foods selected and consumed were recorded using the quarter waste method and food waste was calculated using the information recorded.


      During the spring of 2013, eight elementary schools (50% low income) enrolling children in kindergarten through grade 5 in one school district in the Houston, TX, area were selected by the Child Nutrition Director.

      Main outcome measures

      The amount of calories and foods consumed and the percentage wasted were assessed.

      Statistical analyses performed

      Analysis of covariance and post hoc analysis were used to examine food consumption and plate waste by grade level (kindergarten and grade 1 [K-Gr1], grades 2 and 3 [Gr2-3], and grades 4 and 5 [Gr4-5]), controlling for student sex and school-level free/reduced priced meal eligibility.


      There were 568 nonrandom lunch meal observations of students included in the analyses. Approximately 48% of the observations were from boys; 50% were from low-income schools, and were evenly divided by grade. In general, students in K-Gr1 consumed fewer calories than both Gr2-3 and Gr4-5, and Gr2-3 students consumed significantly fewer calories than Gr4-5. K-Gr1 students also consumed less and wasted more total and red-orange vegetables, total/whole/refined grains, and total protein foods than the older students. Gr2-3 students wasted more calories and total grains than Gr4-5 students. K-Gr1 students wasted more fruit than Gr2-3 students.


      Overall, younger students in elementary schools (K-Gr-1) consumed less of the foods they selected for their lunch meals, and wasted more than older elementary school students. Future studies should investigate why younger children wasted more food and potential strategies to reduce food waste by younger students.


      To read this article in full you will need to make a payment

      Purchase one-time access:

      Academic & Personal: 24 hour online accessCorporate R&D Professionals: 24 hour online access
      One-time access price info
      • For academic or personal research use, select 'Academic and Personal'
      • For corporate R&D use, select 'Corporate R&D Professionals'


      Subscribe to Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
      Already a print subscriber? Claim online access
      Already an online subscriber? Sign in
      Institutional Access: Sign in to ScienceDirect


      1. Food and Nutrition Service, US Department of Agriculture. National School Lunch Program Fact Sheet. Published 2013. Accessed June 1, 2016.

        • Food and Nutrition Service, US Department of Agriculture
        Nutrition standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. Final rule.
        Fed Reg. 2012; 77: 4088-4167
      2. Food and Nutrition Service, US Department of Agriculture. Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Published 2010. Accessed June 1, 2016.

      3. Food and Nutrition Service, US Department of Agriculture. Offer versus Serve: Guidance for the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program. Published 2015. Accessed June 1, 2016.

      4. Buzby JC, Guthrie JF. Plate waste in school nutrition programs: Final report to Congress (E-FAN-02-009). Published March 2002. Accessed June 1, 2016.

        • Condon E.
        • Drilea S.
        • Lichtenstein C.
        • Mabli J.
        • Madden E.
        • Niland K.
        Diet Quality of American School Children by National School Lunch Participation Status: Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2005-2010.
        US Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, Alexandria, VA2015 (Accessed June 1, 2016.)
        • de Lange W.
        • Nahman A.
        Costs of food waste in South Africa: Incorporating inedible food waste.
        Waste Manag. 2015; 40: 167-172
        • Vogliano C.
        • Brown K.
        The state of America's wasted food and opportunities to make a difference.
        J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016; 116: 1199-1207
        • Dillon M.S.
        • Lane H.W.
        Evaluation of the offer vs. serve option within self-serve, choice menu lunch program at the elementary school level.
        J Am Diet Assoc. 1989; 89: 1780-1785
        • Devaney B.L.
        • Gordon A.R.
        • Burghardt J.A.
        Dietary intakes of students.
        Am J Clin Nutr. 1995; 61: 205S-212S
      5. Cashman L, Tripurana M, Englund T, Bergman EA. Food group preferences of elementary school children participating in the National School Lunch Program. J Child Nutr Manag [serial on the Internet]. 2010;34.–News-and-Publications/4–The-Journal-of-Child-Nutrition-and-Management/Spring-2010/Volume-34,-Issue-1,-Spring-2010–-Cashman;-Tripurana;-Englund;-Bergman/. Accessed June 1, 2016.

        • Reger C.
        • O'Neil C.E.
        • Nicklas T.A.
        • Myers L.
        • Berenson G.S.
        Plate waste of school lunches served to children in a low socioeconomic elementary school in South Louisiana.
        Sch Food Serv Res Rev. 1996; 20: 13-19
        • Smith S.L.
        • Cunningham-Sabo L.
        Food choice, plate waste and nutrient intake of elementary- and middle-school students participating in the US National School Lunch Program.
        Public Health Nutr. 2013; 17: 1255-1263
        • Byker C.J.
        • Farris A.R.
        • Marcenelle M.
        • Davis G.C.
        • Serrano E.L.
        Food waste in a school nutrition program after implementation of new lunch program guidelines.
        J Nutr Educ Behav. 2014; 46: 406-411
        • Cohen J.F.
        • Richardson S.
        • Parker E.
        • Catalano P.J.
        • Rimm E.B.
        Impact of the new US Department of Agriculture school meal standards on food selection, consumption, and waste.
        Am J Prev Med. 2014; 46: 388-394
        • Schwartz M.B.
        • Henderson K.E.
        • Read M.
        • Danna N.
        • Ickovics J.R.
        New school meal regulations increase fruit consumption and do not increase total plate waste.
        Child Obes. 2015; 11: 242-247
        • Bontrager Yoder A.B.
        • Foecke L.L.
        • Schoeller D.A.
        Factors affecting fruit and vegetable school lunch waste in Wisconsin elementary schools participating in Farm to School programmes.
        Public Health Nutr. 2015; 18: 2855-2863
      6. US Government Accounting Office, Resources Community and Economic Development Division. School Lunch Program: Cafeteria managers' views on food wasted by students. Published 1996. Accessed May 31, 2016.

        • Cullen K.W.
        • Dave J.M.
        • Jensen H.H.
        • Chen T.A.
        Differential improvements in student fruit and vegetable selection and consumption in response to the new National School Lunch Program regulations: A pilot study.
        J Acad Nutr Diet. 2015; 115: 743-750
        • Hanks A.S.
        • Wansink B.
        • Just D.R.
        Reliability and accuracy of real-time visualization techniques for measuring school cafeteria tray waste: Validating the quarter-waste method.
        J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014; 114: 470-474
      7. Nutrition Data System for Research (NDSR) [computer program]. Version 2012. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota; 2012.

      8. SAS [computer program]. Version 9.3. Chicago, IL: SAS Institute Inc; 2011.

      9. Bainum S. How early is too early for school lunch? Published 2012. Accessed June 1, 2016.

      10. Stepansky J, Chapman B. Lunch starts before 11 am at more than half of city schools. Published February 10, 2014. Accessed June 1, 2016.

      11. Molland J. Why are kids eating school lunch at 9:45? Published 2012. Accessed June 1, 2016.

      12. American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Dietetic Association, National Hispanic Medical Association, National Medical Association, US Department of Agriculture. Healthy School Nutrition Environments: Promoting Healthy Eating Behaviors. Accessed June 1, 2016.

        • Fox M.K.
        • Condon E.
        • Crepinsek M.K.
        • et al.
        School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study IV, Vol. I: School Foodservice Operations, School Environments, and Meals Offered and Served.
        US Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, Alexandria, VA2012
        • Cohen J.F.
        • Jahn J.L.
        • Richardson S.
        • Cluggish S.A.
        • Parker E.
        • Rimm E.B.
        Amount of time to eat lunch is associated with children's selection and consumption of school meal entrée, fruits, vegetables, and milk.
        J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016; 116: 123-128
        • Fenton K.
        • Rosen N.J.
        • Wakimoto P.
        • Patterson T.
        • Goldstein L.H.
        • Ritchie L.D.
        Eat lunch first or play first? Inconsistent associations with fruit and vegetable consumption in elementary school.
        J Acad Nutr Diet. 2015; 115: 585-592
        • Getlinger M.J.
        • Laughlin V.T.
        • Bell E.
        • Akre C.
        • Arjmandi B.H.
        Food waste is reduced when elementary-school children have recess before lunch.
        J Am Diet Assoc. 1996; 96: 906-908
        • Ruppenthal B.
        • Hogue W.
        Playground and plate waste.
        Sch Foodserv J. 1977; 31: 66-70
        • Tanaka C.
        • Richards K.L.
        • Takeuchi L.S.L.
        • Otani M.
        • Maddock J.
        Modifying the recess before lunch program: A pilot study in Kaneohe Elementary School.
        Calif J Health Promot. 2005; 3: 1-7
        • Cohen J.F.
        • Smit L.A.
        • Parker E.
        • et al.
        Long-term impact of a chef on school lunch consumption: Findings from a 2-year pilot study in Boston middle schools.
        J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012; 112: 927-933
        • Fulkerson J.A.
        • French S.A.
        • Story M.
        • Nelson H.
        • Hannan P.J.
        Promotions to increase lower-fat food choices among students in secondary schools: Description and outcomes of TACOS (Trying Alternative Cafeteria Options in Schools).
        Public Health Nutr. 2004; 7: 665-674
        • Wechsler H.
        • Basch C.E.
        • Zybert P.
        • Shea S.
        Promoting the selection of low-fat milk in elementary school cafeterias in an inner-city Latino community: Evaluation of an intervention.
        Am J Public Health. 1998; 88: 427-433


      S. F. Niaki is a graduate student, Department of Nutrition, Texas Woman’s University, Houston.


      C. E. Moore is an associate professor, Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences, Texas Woman’s University, Houston.


      T.-A. Chen is a biostatistician, US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Children's Nutrition Research Center, Department of Pediatrics, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX.


      K. Weber Cullen is a professor, US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Children's Nutrition Research Center, Department of Pediatrics, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX.