Editor’s note: This post was updated on May 6, 2020.
To get our kids to eat vegetables, we parents have been known to resort to all manner of creative strategies: the choo-choo and airplane method for babies, the Pinterest-approved broccoli castles and Elsa princess-shaped casseroles for toddlers, and the ever-popular hiding-veggies-in-sweeter-stuff technique for uneasily impressed older kids.
Well, prepare to be dazzled, folks, because according to a study published this year in Preventive Medicine, it turns out there’s an even simpler approach that’s been under our noses the whole time: playtime scheduling.
Specifically, when researchers followed seven schools, three of which moved recess from after lunch to before, and four that kept recess after lunch, they discovered the time of play made a big difference.
How’s this for encouraging:
We find that moving recess before lunch increased consumption of fruits and vegetables by 0.16 servings per child (a 54% increase) and increased the fraction of children eating at least one serving of fruits or vegetables by 10 percentage points (a 45% increase).”
Why does this work, and how can we apply it to non-school related vegetable eating? Firstly, we know that when kids had only class to look forward to, they weren’t in as much of a rush to finish eating, so they’d eat what was in front of them.
Related read: What to feed your active child
Conversely, if your kids do their homework when they get home, and you want them snacking on vegetables, you have a greater chance of getting them to eat more, knowing they’re unlikely to be eager to begin their work. Dinner timing, too, can be manipulated, so that their eating is scheduled after they’ve already been out to play.
Need more anecdotal proof? Consider the difference between the way kids eat lunch at school during cold weather versus warm. In fall and spring, when my daughter and her friends have the opportunity to play outside, all us parents grumble about getting home with barely eaten lunches. However, in winter, when it often gets too cold to play outside, their lunch boxes come back mostly empty.
So what’s the take-away from this study? Playtime is a great motivator for our kids, so keeping them active as an incentive to get them to eat better is, well, the icing on the nutritious cake.