Parents everywhere know that when children run around outside, participate in sports practice or a big game they build up an appetite. Could this knowledge be applied to encourage healthy eating at school meals? In a 2014 research paper published in Preventative Medicine, researchers investigated how recess before lunch impacts what students eat during school meals.
Seven elementary schools in Orem, Utah participated in the study. Prior to the study, all of the schools held recess after lunch. During the study 3 of the schools flipped the order and held recess before lunch while four other participating schools kept their original schedule.
The researchers found that in schools with recess before lunch, the number of students who selected at least one serving of fruits or vegetables increased by 45% and students ate more of the fruits and vegetables on their trays. They measured a 54% increase in consumption of fruits and vegetables. During the same time period schools with recess after lunch actually saw a decrease in fruit and vegetable consumption.
These findings suggest that simply holding recess before lunch in elementary schools is an easy and cost effective way to better the health of elementary school students. If you’re familiar with the Smarter Lunchrooms 60 Point Scorecard, this strategy might sound familiar to you! That’s because it’s one of the 10 strategies in the School Community Involvement section of the Scorecard.
“While not every school has the flexibility to offer recess before lunch, those that do have a great opportunity to improve the health and wellbeing of their students” says Cornell Behavioral Economist and Co-Founder of the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, David Just, PhD. Recess before lunch can boost student’s appetites and make them more likely to eat the foods they need to fuel the rest of their day. Recess before lunch also offers students the opportunity to wind down from physical activity rather than speed through their meal in order to have more time to play. Lastly, by increasing consumption of selected fruits and vegetables, recess before lunch can decrease cafeteria waste because more of the fruits and vegetables that students take are actually eaten.
For more low-cost/no-cost tips for nudging healthy food choices in school meal programs, visit this page with descriptions of all 60 research based Smarter Lunchrooms strategies: https://www.smarterlunchrooms.org/scorecard-tools/smarter-lunchrooms-strategies and get started completing a Scorecard for your school, here: https://www.smarterlunchrooms.org/scorecard
Recess before lunch study citation: Price, Joseph and David Just (2014). Lunch, Recess and Nutrition: Responding to Time Incentives in the Cafeteria. Preventive Medicine, 71, 27-310. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2014.11.016