Time and again, we're told breakfast is the most important meal of the day -- but for children, it's even more essential to start the day fueled up. Not only do kids use lots of energy in the classroom and the playground, but they're growing, too. And, the right kind of nutritious breakfast gives a head start on learning, aiding concentration and brainpower.
"After a night of fasting, a nutritious meal supplies the blood stream with brain- and blood sugar-stabilizing elements that boost learning and overall energy," says Lisa C. Cohn, MMSC, MED, RD, of Manhattan's Park Avenue Nutrition. "Breakfast supplies the energy for children to have good attention at school. Brainpower requires good energy from nourishing foods."
This might sound like a tall order for busy parents, but it's just a matter of choosing the right products and ingredients. Start with the shopping cart and swap out convenience foods loaded with sugar, preservatives and white flour. Cohn advises parents to choose fresh, good-quality foods made from whole grains that are free of additives and pesticides. "For children who won't eat breakfast," she says, "try offering fruit, granola cereals, nut butter sandwiches or just favorite leftovers, such as a chicken leg."
"A nutritious breakfast needs to contain protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrate energy," she adds. "Growing brains benefit from foods high in essential fatty acids that nourish the brain's fatty tissue and the nervous system. Better breakfasts promote better moods, better attention and better overall energy."
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Brain-boosting breakfast options include:
Cottage cheese with real fruit on top of whole-grain toast, pancakes or waffles
Nut butter roll-ups with sliced apple, pear or fruit spread (but watch the sugar content)
Homemade smoothies with berries, mango or pineapple
Eggs: hard-boiled, poached on toast or scrambled
Add-ins that give a health kick:
Nuts and seeds: great in waffles, pancakes and atop cereal
Avocado: perfect in smoothies and sandwiches for added energy and essential oils
Beyond boring brown bag lunches
It's not just a school lunch box anymore: It's a potential powerhouse of nutrition. Packing it is one thing, but getting children to eat new, nutritious foods is another. That's why the summer break is the time to start prepping children. Sitting down and eating lunch with them is the best way to have them try new foods, says Nicolette Pace, RD.
"Children are mimics," says Pace, the founder of NutriSource Inc., which offers nutrition-based medical therapy and counseling. "Use the summer as a constructive time to set up good habits for the new school year. Try new ideas, sit down together and eat. If the child sees you enjoying it, they are more likely to eat it."
Pace suggests new sandwich recipes with more produce. "Add raw spinach and carrots to chicken salad, or sliced apples or berries to peanut butter and jelly."
Also, switch to whole-grain breads and swap mayonnaise with yogurt to reduce calories and add calcium and probiotoics. Add a sweet snack in the form of homemade trail mix.
"A lot of store trail mixes have sugar-coated berries. Choose nuts, seeds and [unsweetened] dried fruit such as blueberries and cranberries. Berries are known to improve brain and motor skills."
If you're met with grumbles, don't quit, says Pace: "Kids need several exposures to accept new foods."
What never to pack
Pace says these two items should never be in your kid’s lunch box:
Empty-calorie drinks: “That means soda, those so-called juices that are just sugary fruit drinks and energy drinks — they are the worst thing to upset brain chemistry.”
Fatty, salty chips: “They are heavy-calorie bags of air. Many are coated with a cocktail of chemicals. Choose a plain tortilla chip rather than something like Doritos. French fries are just as bad.”