Brain Food

Foods that fuel learning.

It is tough for 8-year-olds to concentrate in school when the sun is shining outside, their stomachs are starting to growl and lunchtime and recess cannot arrive soon enough. Their minds start to wander and they grow sleepy.

To help your children avoid daytime lulls, a healthy breakfast to start the school day and a healthy school lunch can fuel their bodies and their learning. Behavior and academic performance can be significantly affected by a child’s nutritional habits. Research shows that the right food can affect a child’s memory, attention and cognitive skills.

What is a healthy daily meal plan for a child? Andrea Shotton MS RD LD, nutrition therapist and registered dietitian at TherapyWorks in Tulsa said the standard adage of five colors a day (red, green, blue/purple, yellow/orange and white) that the Dole Company used many years ago is a great start.

“The best rule of thumb is to have a protein source like dairy, meat, beans, or nuts at every meal or snack and choose a wide array of colorful food throughout the day,” Shotton said. “Combining the variety of colorful fruits and vegetables with grains, protein and fat provides a well-balanced nutritious meal plan to aid in the child’s ability to focus.”

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. After fasting all night, a child’s body and brain need a fresh supply of blood glucose, the brain’s basic fuel. According to a research study published in the “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition” in April 1998, children who skip breakfast show increased errors in schoolwork, earn lower scores on cognitive tests and have slower memory recall.

“To help a child stay full longer and increase his energy, use a mix of carbohydrate-rich breakfast foods with any protein food like low-fat cheese, nuts, or egg-whites,” Shotton said. “Fortified cereal may be their greatest source of iron, vitamin A and folic acid for the day. Additionally, the effect of blood glucose levels from a balanced breakfast made from a combination of protein, fat and carbohydrate is thought to enhance any morning school performance due to their lack of feeling fatigued as well as increase satiety to reduce over-indulgence at lunch or at the snack machine.”

By lunchtime a child’s blood glucose levels have dropped again. What is in your child’s lunch box can play a role in his or her afternoon academic attentiveness. Again, said Shotton, always include a protein source such as meat, beans, nuts, or dairy in the lunch.

“Protein and a little low-fat food items are key to aiding blood glucose levels to remain stable over the afternoon. You don’t have to be traditional and offer the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Beef jerky, rolled turkey, turkey pepperoni slices, low-fat string cheese, yogurt and nuts are all good options,” she said. “And don’t forget, time is limited at lunch. If the child spends it opening each container or package, he may not be able to enjoy all that was packed in the lunch box. When it comes to beverages, try to include dairy in the lunch box. There are many shelf-stable options available that are lunch-box sized. If your child must have a juice pouch or box, look for the ones that are 100 percent juice or, more preferable, the ones that now contain vegetable juice in them as well.”

If your child eats food from the school cafeteria, this year the food has become more nutritional due to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new standards for school meals. The new school standards are practical changes that many parents are already making in their children’s diets at home. The standards include ensuring students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week, substantially increasing offerings of whole grain-rich foods, offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties, limiting calories based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion size and reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.

Shotton’s breakfast and lunch ideas to keep your child active and alert during the school day:

• Instant oatmeal made with milk instead of water – mix in raisins and top with chopped walnuts or sprinkle in ground flaxseed.

• Mix up a breakfast smoothie made with low-fat milk, frozen strawberries and a banana and sprinkle in ground flaxseed.

• Top a toaster waffle with low-fat yogurt and fruit.

• Stuff a whole-wheat pita with scrambled egg and low-fat shredded cheese.

• Spread a flour tortilla with peanut butter. Add a whole banana and roll it up.

• Spread almond butter on a whole-wheat toasted bagel. Top with apple slices.

• Leftovers from dinner (pizza, spaghetti, soups).

• Yogurt topped with trail mix.

• Chili with beans.

• Sandwiches.

• Leftover rice mixed with low-fat yogurt, dried fruit and nuts. Sprinkle with cinnamon.