There’s a way to get school kids to eat more vegetables at lunch, and it has nothing to do with what’s on the menu. Just mess with their schedule, finds a new study published in the journal Preventive Medicine: Kids who have recess before lunch are more likely to eat their fruits and vegetables than those who play after they eat.
The study looked at 2,500 kids in seven Utah elementary schools who participated in the National School Lunch Program, which serves balanced lunches that must include a serving of vegetables with each meal. Three schools switched their schedules to hold recess before lunch, while the other four schools kept recess after lunch. Researchers stood by the garbage cans and measured how many children threw away fruits and vegetables and found that the schedule swap boosted produce consumption by an impressive 54% for elementary school children.
That’s because young students tend to rush through their meals and skip the most nutritious parts when lunch is held before recess, the authors say. “Recess is a pretty big deal for most kids. If you have kids [choose] between playing and eating their veggies, the time spent playing is going to win most of the time,” said study author Joe Price, an economics professor at Brigham Young University, in a press release.
The effect may not hold for children who bring their own lunch, since these kids skip waiting in lines and feel less rushed to get to recess, the authors say.
Previous research has shown that children in the United States throw away nearly $4 million in fruits and vegetables every day, so an easy schedule swap may be a cheap way to reduce food waste, increase students’ focus in the classroom and improve the diets of American children.
“It’s a very simple solution, and it doesn’t cost all that much,” said David Just, study author and Cornell University Professor, in a video. “It’s just moving recess before lunch.”
Read next: Let Your Kids Sleep More For Better Grades
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