Brain Food For Kids: Feed Your Children So They Excel At School

Wednesday, October 4, 2006 - 1:28pm

By Marissa Lippert, RD

To the dismay of countless youngsters and to the delight of parents across the nation, another new school year has begun. Amidst all the back-to-school shopping, after-school activities and hours of homework, don't forget to stock the fridge and pantry with nutritious food choices for a healthy head-start this fall. Provide kids with the nutrients they need to power through a long school day, alert and ready to hit the books and participate in extracurricular activities.

Breakfast is important

You've heard it before...and Mom was right...and I'm going to say it againresearch studies indicate that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. The nourishment and energy from healthy food sources in your child's breakfast will rev-up her metabolism and spark her cognitive function enormously. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that skipping the first meal of the day can hinder academic performance and interfere with cognition and learning among school children.

For more information on why breakfast is important for kids: see 5 Important Reasons your Child Should Eat Breakfast.

Foods and nutrients that build brain function

Moving on from breakfast, here are specific foods and nutrients that can enhance your child's diet and increase brain development and function:

1.   Choline is good for the memory

This nutrient is found in eggs and nuts. It augments brain and memory development.

  • Simple Suggestions....
    • Start the day with some scrambled organic eggs with a few fresh vegetables mixed in, served over a slice of wholegrain toast.
    • Serve up a fun "wild west wrap," with scrambled eggs, salsa and Monterey jack cheese served in a high-fiber whole wheat wrap.

2.   Antioxidants for memory improvement

An abundance of foods are packed with brain-boosting antioxidants like vitamin A, vitamin C & vitamin E.

  • Simple Suggestions....
    • Work in fresh fruit and vegetables at mealtimes and snacks. Nuts, beans and legumes are also rich in antioxidants. Pair a hummus or black bean dip with fresh cut vegetables for a fun "dip and dunk" snack kids will love.
    • If you've got a picky eater, get creative with a tasty homemade yogurt-fruit smoothie as an energizing afternoon snack or a quick, satiating breakfast on-the-go.
    • Add vegetables into kid-friendly dishes and get them involved in the cooking process. Try incorporating vegetables into pasta sauces and soups or top homemade pizza with veggies of your child's choosing.

3.   Omega-3 fatty acids improve cognitive functions

An important player in bolstering cognitive function, omega-3 fatty acids are healthy fats found in a variety of foods including cold-water fatty fish (like salmon and tuna), avocado, flaxseed oil or ground flaxseed, nuts (like walnuts and almonds), and heart-healthy oils (like olive oil).
*Note: Watch your young child's consumption of tuna because of its high mercury content. Aim for one to two times per week, and choose chunk light tuna in water which contains lower amounts of mercury than albacore.

    • Simple suggestions...
      • Get creative in the kitchen with your kids and encourage them to taste new foods such as avocado or grilled salmon; you never know where their taste buds will take them! Slip two to three thin slices of avocado into sandwiches or whole wheat wraps for a brain-boosting lunch.
      • Flaxseed is high in fiber to aid digestion and is packed with healthy omega-3 fats. Sprinkle 1-2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed meal into cold or hot cereal at breakfast or mix it into a yogurt-fruit parfait at snack-time; the kids won't even notice.

4.   Whole grains to improve your memory function

Complex, whole-grain carbohydrates contain folate and other B vitamins which help improve memory function and are rich in fiber, providing a steady stream of energy so your child can ace that math test.

    • Simple suggestions...
      • For a morning wake-up call of whole grains, try hearty steel-cut oatmeal for breakfast. Choose unsweetened flavors to skip excess sugar and calories. Top with fresh berries or banana slices and a touch of honey for a burst of natural sweetness.
      • Make the switch to 100% whole wheat bread and look for wholegrain cereals with 5 grams of fiber of more.

5.   Iron for mental alertness

Iron-rich foods also improve mental alertness and energy levels. Lean sources of red meat, poultry, spinach, beans, dried fruits, and whole-grains are excellent choices.

  • Simple suggestions...
    • Top off an easy weeknight spaghetti dinner with a few meatballs using 93% lean ground round. Test out whole wheat pasta for a healthy switch to complex carbohydrates.
    • Keep kids energized throughout afternoon activities and pack a homemade trail mix such as dried cherries, golden raisins, raw pecans or almonds, and wholegrain cereal. Remember that a little trail mix goes a long way... 1/4 cup equals a single serving.

6.   Calcium to strenghten bones

Last but certainly not least, calcium's great for growing youngsters to strengthen bones and help them remain active. Nearly 85% of young girls and 60% of boys ages nine to eighteen don't hit their daily calcium target of 1300mg. For four- to eight-year-olds, the requirement is 800mg.

    • Simple suggestions...
      • Make sure your fridge is stocked with healthy calcium picks such as low-fat milk or soy milk, yogurt and cheese as well as almonds, salmon, tofu, edamame and fortified cereals and OJ.
        *Note: To limit your child's consumption of excess sugar and calories, limit juice intake to the recommended daily amount, which is 4 ounces.
      • Pressed for time? Pack turkey and cheese ‘roll ups' for a quick and easy snack or as part of a healthy lunch...the kids will love the fun shape. Use antibiotic-free turkey slices and regular or lite cheddar or Swiss cheese.

7.   Water keeps your concentration levels up

Staying well-hydrated is extremely important and helps prevent fatigue and keep concentration levels going strong.

    • Simple suggestions...
      • Skip the sugary soda and reach for a bottle of water instead!
      • Bring a little ‘zing' to regular water with a slice or two of lemon, lime or orange.

Foods that drain the brain

Now that you've got your brain-boosting list down pat, steer clear of certain items that can quickly drain energy and kids' attention levels, often causing short spikes in activity and then crashing lows from excess sugar and artificial ingredients. Check labels and ingredient lists. Bypass the following items on your next trip to the grocery store:

Brain-boosting recipes (kid-tested and approved!)

Whether you're scrambling to get the kids out of the door in the morning with a quick breakfast or making a fun family dinner on a Friday night, here are a few healthy recipes that enhance cognitive function without sacrificing kid-friendly flavor.

Banana-Berry Smoothie (serves 2)

1 medium banana
1 cup frozen mixed berries
1 tbsp natural peanut butter (if desired)
1-2 tbsp ground flaxseed (if desired)
1/3 cup of 1% or 2% milk
1 cup plain or vanilla yogurt
2-4 cubes ice

Put all ingredients in a blender; blend until smooth.

Funny-Face Veggie Pizzas (serves 1)

1 mini whole wheat pita
2 tsp olive oil
Garlic powder to taste
2-3 slices of fresh part-skim mozzarella cheese
2-3 leaves fresh basil, if desired
3-4 fresh tomato slices
Assorted vegetables of (broccoli, red & green peppers, olives, spinach), allow kids arrange into a funny face with "olive eyes", "spinach hair" and "red pepper lips"
Salt, pepper to taste

Drizzle olive oil and garlic powder over pita; arrange tomato, cheese and veggies into a funny face. Bake at 375°F for 6-8 minutes until cheese melts and browns.

See more information on foods that aid your brain functions see Food for Thought: 10 Foods to Increase Your Brain Function.