Fruits and vegetables do not hold a candle to the allure of playtime, but a recent study scheduled to be released in the February issue of Preventive Magazine, discovered that healthier choices are more popular when children have school lunch after recess. Although federal school lunch guidelines dictate fruits and vegetables as part of the menu, many schools have trouble enforcing the rule with children anxious to get outside to play. More choices and healthy eating rewards have been only partially successful in teaching the younger generation good eating habits. The new study, conducted in conjunction with Brigham Young University (BYU) and Cornell University (CU), suggests a common sense scheduling answer that does not involve increasing the already overstretched school budgets.
Associate economics professor, Joe Price at BYU and Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs’ director David Just looked at the menu choices of children at several schools in Orem, Utah, some that held lunch before recess and some after to compare the children’s food consumption habits. They found that the lunch after recess group consumed 54 percent more fruits and vegetables than the lunch before recess group. In schools that held recess after lunch, researchers actually saw the consumption of the salad bar items decrease over the course of the year. They also determined that lunch after recess decreases food waste and increases children’s overall nutritional intake. Price says that it is a losing battle when children have a choice between carrot sticks and recess. Recess will win the popularity contest every time, leaving the fruits and vegetables languishing in trash receptacles in the rush to get to playtime rather than in tummies providing the nourishment for which they are intended.
The logic behind the dietary results of holding lunch after recess is not rocket science. By allowing children to run, race jump, chase, play and generally burn off energy before expecting them to sit down with a plate of food, they come in hungrier from the calorie deficit they just created by all their exertions. The Pied Piper of the playground is not calling to them, competing for their focus and attention. In other words, the exercise builds up an appetite that makes children more willing to take the time to eat the healthy fruits and vegetables that parents, school officials and the USDA want them to eat, resulting in 40 percent less waste, according to Price and Just. More food in the tummy than the trash is good news for schools, Price asserts, because well-nourished children are better prepared to learn in the classroom. In addition, the researchers point to another study that shows that recess before lunch saves schools approximately 14 cents per meal.
Price points out that the results have broader applications for parents as well, indicating that regular sit down family meals are more conducive to teaching children healthy eating habits than come-and-go meals where children are allowed to play as soon as they are finished eating. What is on the plate or tray matters less than the scheduling of activities so that healthy food becomes more attractive because of the hunger and the settled expectation that mealtime is sit down time dedicated to eating and nourishing the body. Rules and incentives for eating the fruits and vegetables may not be as effective as simply establishing a schedule that provides the maximum internal motivation of appetite for a child to eat what is in front of him or her. Rather than seeing mealtime as something to whiz through in order to get to a more popular activity, children will increase their natural inclination to satisfy their hunger. The researchers conclude that if the simple cost-free strategy of switching the schedule so that lunch comes after recess gets children to eat their fruits and vegetables, makes them healthier and saves the school money in the long run, it is more than worth the effort to make the change.
By Tamara Christine Van Hooser
Image courtesy of Lance Cheung – Flickr License