Getting school children to eat more of the healthy foods on their plates doesn’t have to involve forcing them, tricking them, or slathering on the butter and cheese. The answer might be as simple as scheduling their lunch time for after recess, instead of before.
That’s the conclusion of a new study led by Joseph Price at Brigham Young University and David Just at Cornell University.
The researchers spent 14 days at each of seven elementary schools in Orem, Utah, where they stood by the trash receptacles at lunchtime and measured the number of servings of fruits and vegetables each student threw away (and noted whether the students had eaten at least one serving of either). For the study, three of the schools in the district had switched lunch to occur after recess, while the other four kept their lunch-then-recess schedule.
The study found a 54% increase in fruit and vegetable consumption by students at the schools where recess came before lunch time, and a 45% increase in the number of students eating at least one serving of fruit and vegetables a day. At the other schools, fruit and vegetable consumption actually declined over the same time period.
When recess followed lunch, students tended to rush through eating to get to their play time, and presumably had less of an appetite to begin with, making them more likely to discard the fruits and vegetables included with their lunches. That’s a recipe for students being hungrier after recess, and it contributes to a decrease in academic performance, as well as unhealthy snacking after school, according to previous research cited in the study.
Switching the order of lunch and recess helped students work up an appetite before lunch, and removed the time pressure they felt while eating. The result: less food waste, and a better setup for student behavior throughout the day—not to mention the long-term benefits of diets rich in fruits and vegetables.