Schools are offering more and more healthy foods for lunch. And schools that participate in the National School Lunch program require students to choose a fruit and a vegetable side. Yet plate waste is a big problem in schools; as The Salt hasreported, kids throw away anywhere from 24 to 35 percent of what's on their trays.
In many schools, kids tend to eat the entrée, like pizza, first, and leave the fruits and vegetables for last. If they aren't hungry after the entrée, they won't eat the healthy foods. But "they definitely don't leave the dessert on the tray," says Joe Price, a professor of economics at Brigham Young University.
Price, along with David Just, a researcher at the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs, wanted to see if perhaps stoking kids hunger by letting them go to recess before lunch might change the equation.
A study they've just published in Preventative Medicine suggests it does. They found that students who have recess before lunch tend to eat more servings of fruits and vegetables than kids who eat lunch first.
The researchers sent assistants to seven elementary schools in Utah, to stand by the trashcans at lunchtime and tally what students ate and what they threw away. The assistants then tallied the contents of more than 22,000 lunch trays for about four days at each school in the spring of 2011 and for about nine days at the same schools in the fall (after three of the schools had changed their schedule to have recess before lunch).
They found students who ate lunch after recess consumed 54 percent more fruits and vegetables than those who ate lunch before recess. In addition, the number of students who ate at least one serving of fruits or vegetables jumped 10 percent when they ate after running around outside.
The researchers also noticed that the students who had recess first didn't seem to feel the same hurry to eat as those who had recess after lunch. "Now that you have a little more time," says Just, "you eat the entrée and think 'OK, I'm still hungry maybe I'll try this broccoli.' "
Yet both researchers acknowledge that there's a big challenge here: Not every school can send kids to recess before lunch. "Scheduling is really difficult at schools," says Just, "particularly if they're overcrowded."
Mary Shaw, spokeswoman for Fairfax County Public Schools, agrees that timing lunch before recess can be difficult. "Often one or two grade levels may have recess together before lunch and one or two may have recess together after lunch," Shaw wrote, "depending on the capacity of the playground, which varies from school to school."
If lunchtime is non-negotiable, Just also maintains a list of suggestions to encourage kids to eat healthier, including lunchroom makeover tactics.
But he also recommends that schools get creative to sell the healthy options, like one school near Cornell that was struggling to sell a bean burrito. "They started advertising it as the big bad bean burrito," he said, "and then they started having to make extra trays."