Recess before lunch to improve eating habits?

kids_runningWhen 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.


  1. Sara Rearick says:

    My name is Sara Rearick.. I am a RN at a private pediatrician office in PA. I am also a mom. I am very passionate on children’s health. I feel that this concept of recess before lunch is a big step in the right direction for healthier eaters in the cafeteria. Example, think of the calories that children are burning when being active after sitting in the classroom for 2-3hours first thing in the morning? This starts the children’s metabolism to start sending messages to the brain saying, “I’m hungry!” It has been proven that if you have healthier options in plan site you are more likely to go for it. Utilize Ice cold water and fresh fruit assortments in plain site that can be a quick go to first on the food tray after a hard play at recess. As a mother, I planned weekly around our households’ hectic schedules how I can produce healthy meals for my kiddos. I understand and advocate for our school lunch programs that they too are trying to offer the healthiest choices for our children. I do know that when my kids walk in the door after baseball, basketball or football I have fresh fruit in plain site while I am getting ready to serve up sometimes a later than I wished for dinner. They 9 times out of 10 snack on a piece of fruit in waiting. Who says that fruit can’t be included in the dinner plan??? My point is in order to feed children healthy, you must study how children think and act. Most kids don’t wonder what’s for dinner until their little bellies tell them their hungry. This is why getting their metabolisms revved up before lunch can really help project healthier food choices.
    Thank you for this wonderful article.

    • Sheri says:

      Thanks for your great comment, Rachel. I agree completely! I always have a bowl of fresh fruit on the counter that kids can snack from anytime. I find that if I serve up a new veggie when they are really hungry, they’re more likely to dig in without even noticing.

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