The XX Factor

Recess Makes Kids Hungry for a Healthy Lunch

It’s one of those ideas that seems blindingly obvious-if you want kids to eat a healthy meal, send them out to play first. Hungry kids eat more of what’s offered. But most schools do just the opposite, letting kids head out to recess the minute they’re done with their food-a situation even the most rookie parent would recognize as primed for disaster. (How many times have you told your kids, “There’s ice cream for dessert!” and had all of them put down their forks immediately and sing out “I’m done!”?)

The NYT reports that schools in New Jersey, Arizona, and Montana have switched to recess before lunch and found less wasted food, as well as more kids eating their fruits and vegetables and drinking their milk. Some teachers also report better behavior, both at lunch and in the classroom. Again, it seems obvious-hungry kids are ready to come in off the playground and sit down to eat. Recess before lunch looks like a no-cost change with academic and health benefits: a win-win.

But plenty of schools balk at change, and this is no exception. Fewer than 5 percent of schools hold recess before lunch, backed by feeble rationales: The kids would have to wash their hands before they ate! And go back for their lunches and take off their coats! Oh, the complexity and all the lost mittens! (And schools in low-income areas note that plenty of students show up at school without eating breakfast, but that’s a separate problem, and one best addressed by offering breakfast, not by serving an early lunch.) Granted that any scheduling switch may require working out a few bugs, and maybe even expending some cash (one New Jersey school installed hand sanitizer dispensers in the lunch room). But it’s still unbelievable that states like California (desperately juggling a deficit at last check) would include $500 million plus in the budget for physical-education programs to reduce obesity and not instantly leap on a relatively simple logistical change that could mean millions of kids eating the healthy food on offer, instead of ravenously hitting the vending machines an hour after throwing away lunch.

Photograph of kids eating lunch by Stockbyte/Getty Creative Images.