For as long as children and vegetables have existed together on the planet, parents have undoubtedly battled with their offspring to eat more of them. I’m sure there’s probably cave drawings somewhere of a Neanderthal mother shaking her head as her babies threw their tubers and berries on the ground.
Though admittedly my kids aren’t picky eaters, they would happily munch on crackers over cruciferous vegetables given the choice, but one thing I’ve learned over the years is that my kids are more apt to try a new food or eat more of something they usually turn their noses up at if they come to the table a little bit hungry. School lunches are a little trickier—after a morning of lessons, little kids aren’t known for sitting still to eat their way through their bento boxes. I’ve composted enough limp cucumber slices at the end of the day to know that getting a school-aged kid to eat all their fruit and veggies is a superhuman feat.
I’d blamed a couple of things for my kids’ rejected lunches: not enough time to eat and too many distractions. I never would have guessed that one of my kids’ dining distractions would be recess, but a study to be published next month in the journal Preventive Medicine suggests that simply letting kids out for recess before lunch (rather than after) could get picky eaters to waste less food and eat more fruits and vegetables.
“Recess is a pretty big deal to kids. If you’re going to make a kid choose between going to recess and eating their veggies, recess is going to win,” says Brigham Young University associate professor Joe Price, who led the study along with David Just, director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs.
Seven elementary schools in Utah participated in the study: three schools switched recess to before lunch and four schools continued to hold recess after lunch. Researchers then measured how many fruit and vegetables the students ate or threw away. Children who ate after recess consumed 54 percent more fruit and vegetables than they had before the switch, and there was a 45 percent increase in the number of kids who ate at least one serving of fruit and vegetables a day. Food waste in these schools also dropped 40 percent. In comparison, students ate fewer fruits and vegetables at the schools where lunch remained before recess.
The study’s results will hopefully encourage school boards to rethink school day schedules (though more research will be needed before you’ll see changes at your own school). This goes beyond reducing food waste and eating better: kids with nutritious food in their bellies behave better and, as a result, are able to learn more.