How Lunchtime Can Boost Academic Performance & Retention

For most students, adolescence is an uncomfortable time. As students enter their secondary school years—that is, middle school through high school—each day and experience lays the foundation for a lifetime of socialization and learning. From evolving educational expectations to hitting puberty, adolescents regularly deal with sudden and significant changes.

While trying to meet new academic standards, they’re also juggling big emotions and social situations they may not fully understand. Through all these changes, a sense of belonging among their peers could be the key to better academic performance, enrollment retention, and improved mental health.

Studies show that student sense of belonging tends to decrease through middle school and high school, but it doesn’t need to be that way. In fact, there’s a surprising opportunity for schools to create connections and foster a sense of belonging with students, and it’s already part of their schedules: lunchtime.

Loving Lunchtime Feeds Belonging

A 2021 study from Brigham Young University found a strong connection between middle school students who reported loving lunchtime and a positive sense of belonging at school. In particular, participation in activities with peers during lunch was the greatest predictor of feeling like they belonged.

Data from Brigham Young University study, “Lunchtime Experiences and Students’ Sense of Belonging in Middle School”

Get Students Engaged

In addition to establishing the connection between feelings of belonging and actively participating in lunchtime activities, the study indicated there likely isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Providing students with occasional structured lunchtime activities can especially help students who feel isolated or are socially struggling. Here are a few ways your cafeteria’s dining strategy can support student connection and encourage stronger enrollment retention.

Lunchtime Club Meet-ups

Organized clubs are a great way for students with similar interests to connect with each other and grow their social circle. There’s an excellent opportunity for dining programs to connect with the teachers sponsoring school- or student-run clubs for special “catered” lunches for these meet-ups.

Bring in Special Vendors

Students—especially adolescent students—can see even the most dynamic school cafeteria menu as “just school food.” To keep them engaged and excited about lunchtime, consider partnering with an outside vendor. In warmer months, think about hosting an outdoor ice cream social by bringing an ice cream truck to the school. Or, think about partnering with a popular local eatery for a Friday lunch special.

Timely Themed Lunches

There are infinite options to engage with what students are interested in most. It could be breakfast for lunch on National Pancake Day, some Boba Fett-uccine for May the 4th, or a special food or drink item celebrating an upcoming movie, show, or video game release. Not only do themed lunch days keep students excited about school lunches, but the collective interest in pop culture-themed days can help them identify and engage with other students with similar interests.

A student showing off her cake after participating in the Nailed It Cake Decorating contest.

Serve Up Socialization

Unstructured time is important for student development, especially as a break during the heavily structured school day. That said, providing students with the opportunity to engage in special lunchtime activities could, over time, boost their opinion of lunchtime and increase their sense of belonging.

Is this seat taken?

We’d love the chance to sit at your lunch table. Let’s talk about creative dining opportunities that’ll excite your students.

Recent & Relevant