Schools have experimented with all sorts of ways to get kids to eat healthier. They’re using smaller plates, and rearranging dining rooms to emphasize fruit bowls. They’re renaming carrots “X-ray Vision Carrots” (to make them sound more exciting) and even paying kids for choosing salad over hot dogs.
Now a new study suggests a far simpler strategy: Rescheduling recess so it falls before lunch and not afterwards.
Researchers from Brigham Young University and Cornell University worked with seven schools in Utah, switching lunch and recess in three of them. They found that in the schools that had recess first, kids ate 54% more vegetables and fruit and 45% more kids ate at least one vegetable and fruit serving.
Joseph Price at BYU puts the results down to two factors. One, the students were in less of a hurry to eat and therefore were more likely to finish their plates. In schools where recess is after lunch, kids will often race each other so they can get outside as quickly as possible. And two, the kids were more hungry, because they’d run around first.
“It is a combination of the two: hungrier and more time,” says Price, an associate professor of economics. “When kids can leave for recess as soon as they are done eating, it really raised the opportunity cost of eating the last items, which are usually the veggies.”
The researchers weighed food waste left on students’ trays over a 14-day period. The kids ranged from grades one through six.
Price points out that switching meal times is extremely cost effective compared to other strategies. For example, new federal guidelines require students to put at least one fruit or vegetable serving on their trays, which has been shown to produce a 40% increase in healthy food eaten. “However, this increase comes at a very high cost since it results in an extra 0.7 servings of fruits and vegetables being thrown away per lunch served, or an extra $3.8 million of extra fruits and vegetables being thrown away each day across all schools,” Price says. That’s according to a separate study he’s conducted (see here).
The paper argues that switching recess before lunch in elementary schools would be a simple thing to do nationwide, though in some schools it may not be practical for all kids. For example, some schools have to stagger mealtimes to accommodate everyone.