When my son started kindergarten last year, I was astonished at how little of his lunch he actually ate. I would pack a nutritious meal displayed in a cute, compartmentalized tray, and often he only took a small bite of each item I packed.
As a first grader this year, with a little experience in the school lunchroom, he began eating more at lunchtime. But he still sometimes complains that he doesn’t have time to finish his lunch, or that he feels rushed.
With that background knowledge under my belt, I stumbled across the Recess Before Lunch initiative. The idea is that children in elementary schools go to recess first, and then eat lunch. (Currently, the vast majority of schools in the U.S. send kids to lunch first, and then out to play.)
There’s a growing body of evidence that shows scheduling research before lunch comes with all sorts of benefits, among them healthier eating habits and better behavior during lunchtime.
A study published in the journal Preventative Medicine this week found students who had recess first ate 54 percent more fruits and vegetables compared with students who had lunch first. (To quantify what kids ate and threw away, research assistants stood next to the waste baskets in elementary school s cafeterias to tally the contents of kids’ lunch trays.)
An earlier study published in the Journal of Child and Nutrition Management found students wasted less food when they had recess first. In the study, plate waste decreased from more than 40 percent to 27 percent in two rural Washington elementary schools that changed their schedule to have lunch after recess.
And research by the Montana Team Nutrition Program, an arm of the state’s Office of Public Education, found that having recess first decreased in discipline problems on the playground, in the cafeteria, and in the classroom.
Researcher observed anecdotally that children feel less rushed because they’re not hurrying to get outside and play. They tend to be hungrier a little later in the day. And because they’ve got socializing out of the way, they are more focused on eating rather than catching up with friends.
While there’s no systematic review on the subject, the evidence seems fairly clear that there are some benefits to having recess before lunchtime in elementary schools. It’s certainly something I’m going to suggest to the principal at my child’s school.