The old saying is “you are what you eat,” but we can add a new variant these days: “Eat smarter, be smarter.” That’s because scientific research is showing that the food you eat can affect how well you learn and how well you retain what you learn. As parents, you can empower your children to become better students by making sure they have the right foods in their diets over the course of the school day.
The most important rule about breakfast is to have one in the first place. Children who eat breakfast in the morning before school score consistently higher on standardized tests, behave better, and are less likely to feel sleepy in class.
The most useful breakfast is one that is not mainly simple sugars that can interfere with thinking and concentration. A short-lived “sugar high,” followed by a crash, leaves the child with little energy to pull through until lunch time.
It’s OK to have cereal for breakfast, but look for one that is lower in sugar and more nutritionally dense, like one that includes nuts and dried fruit. A granola that is not loaded up with sugar is a good option. Even better is oatmeal, which is filling and allows a wide variety of toppings that boost the nutrition even more. Another possibility is serving cereal mixed into yogurt rather than topped with milk.
It’s not usually possible to fix a hot breakfast on school mornings, but when you can, try to have a breakfast that includes eggs. It’s not necessary to serve up full-on omelets. Keep hard-boiled eggs on hand in the fridge in case you need to eat on the run. Another quick option that is filling and includes protein is whole-wheat toast spread with peanut or other nut butter instead of jelly.
If your school has a recess or opportunity for a mid-morning snack, pack something quick and healthy like hummus with a handful of carrots or wheat crackers for dipping, a small bag of trail mix, or some cut-up fruit with a couple of small chunks of cheese.
Article continues below...
Review your school’s typical lunch menus and see how much they include nutritious choices versus junk foods, and help your child pick foods that are better for them. If you don’t like the overall quality of the food on offer at school, make the time to pack lunch for your child.
Sandwiches, vegetables and dip, fruits, and dinner leftovers that keep well are good choices for school lunches. Make sandwiches healthier and more filling by using whole grain bread, vegetable toppings, and lean meats. Avoid salty, highly processed meats like bologna and salami. Choose low-salt turkey, beef, and chicken from the deli counter.
It’s OK to include a treat like a cookie or candy but make it small and more of an afterthought to the meal along with some fruit or applesauce. It shouldn’t be more than a bite or two.
For creative lunches that your kids will love to have, look for bento-style compartmented lunch containers where you can include a variety of finger foods, and have some fun with picks or cutting food into shapes.
Most kids need a snack to get them through homework time and tide them over until dinner. Again, steer clear of empty calories and sugary snacks. Good afterschool snacks include hummus and whole grain crackers, nut butter and apples, or string cheese and a handful of raisins. One option some parents like is to set aside a drawer or bin in the refrigerator for snacks and fill with pre-packaged servings like applesauce cups or veggies and dip. You can also divvy up fresh fruit or trail mix into snack-size plastic bags and keep them in the designated spot in the fridge and pantry, allowing kids to choose from what is available. Steer clear of low-nutrition, highly processed options like snack cakes, chips, toaster tarts, and frozen pizza bites.
Research has repeatedly shown that children learn better when they start the day with a nutritious breakfast and have healthy food available to them for school lunches and at home. Not only will your kids learn and behave better, but they will also enjoy school more when they are not hungry or sugared up, and be better able to follow what’s going on throughout the day.