Cleverly designed trays and strict nutrition rules may not be best way to encourage kids to eat healthier. Instead, figuring out when recess and lunch should be scheduled during the school day may be the key.
Kids who have recess before lunch are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables than kids who have recess after lunch, according to a recent study by Joseph Price, economics professor at Brigham Young University and David Just, behavioral economist at Cornell University. They studied seven elementary schools in Orem, Utah in a period of 13 days. Three of the seven schools had recess before lunch while the remaining four had recess after lunch. Researchers stood by trash cans recording children’s food trays and noticed that kids who had recess after lunch were 45 percent more likely to eat one serving of fruits and vegetables than kids who had recess after lunch.
"Recess is a pretty big deal for most kids. If you have kids chose between playing and eating their veggies, the time spent playing is going to win most of the time," explained Price in a press release. “You just don't want to set the opportunity cost of good behaviors too high."
Rescheduling students’ recess may also benefit schools from an economic standpoint. Under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, national lunches require schools to portion out one serving of fruits and vegetables per child. For schools following current national food requirements, it could cost about $800 million per year solely in food costs.
Price and Just’s study shows that encouraging healthier eating behaviors does not have to involve additional expenses. Instead, they suggest schools to schedule recess before lunch.
“It’s not always what’s on the tray that matters. Sometimes, it’s what you were doing before or after lunch that makes the difference,” said Price in a video for Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab.