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What Kids Eat at School Might Depend on When They Have Lunch and Recess

According to a new study, the timing of lunch and recess during the schoolday has an effect both on what our kids eat and how active they are. 

Kids Recess Lunch Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Last year, my 10-year-old had lunch at 1:30, after recess, and his lunch box came home empty almost every single day. This year, he has lunch much earlier—at 11:20, before recess. And when I open his lunch box at the end of the day, more often than not, half his food is still inside. Which is why I was't all that surprised to hear about a new study that found the timing of lunch and recess has an effect on what our kids eat and how active they are.

For the study, researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign assessed the lunch intake and physical activity of 151 fourth- and fifth-grade students from two schools. Here's what they found: While less food was wasted when recess was held before lunch, the kids actually ate more veggies when lunch was served first. Students who had a combined lunch and recess period, meanwhile, were more physically active when lunch was served before recess. But when the lunch-recess period was shorter, the kids were more active when recess was held first.

"Overall, our findings suggest that recess and lunch behaviors are interrelated," doctoral student Gabriella McLoughlin explained in a press release. "However, the specific food choices and activity levels children engage in may be subject to the timing and duration of lunch and recess."

Healthy Lunch Ideas for Kids

Current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend scheduling at least 20 minutes of recess daily before lunch so kids will eat more. And while the new study did show reduced food waste when recess was held before lunch, this recommendation may have unintended consequences when it comes to the types of foods our kids are eating and how active they are.

The researchers say they now plan to communicate their findings to school teachers, administrators, and policymakers to help schools develop policies to promote healthy eating and exercise habits.

Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer, blogger, and mom of two who writes about parenting and pop culture. Check out her website holleeactmanbecker.com for more, and then follow her on Instagram and Twitter.