Fuel your child’s mind and body

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Nutritious foods and beverages set the stage for optimal learning

By Susan Baldani

Many variables contribute to a child’s academic success. Focus is often on student-teacher ratio, parental involvement, and access to support services for kids who are struggling. Of course, all these factors are very critical, but one that is often forgotten is the importance of good nutrition when it comes to learning.

Research has proven that children who eat healthy breakfasts and well-balanced lunches are often more alert, more productive and less tired and jittery during the school day. Foods and beverages that children often prefer for breakfast, such as high-sugar cereals and juice, can initially lead to a burst of energy that quickly dissipates, leaving them hungry and irritable. Lunch foods such as chicken fingers and cheeseburgers are also detrimental. According to the Society for Neuroscience, recent studies revealed that diets with high levels of saturated fats actually impair learning and memory.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reports that “eating a healthy breakfast is associated with improved cognitive function (especially memory), reduced absenteeism, and improved mood.” They also found that “empty calories from added sugars and solid fats contribute to 40% of daily calories for children and adolescents age 2–18 years. Approximately half of these empty calories come from six sources: soda, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, grain desserts, pizza, and whole milk.”

Schools are trying to do their part to give their students a nutritional advantage. An initiative called “The Healthy Schools Program” has been incorporated into schools across the U.S., replacing many of the processed lunch foods with fruits, salads, and lean proteins. Low fat milk and water are also being offered.

So, what can parents do at home?  Mornings are often hectic with parents trying to get to work and kids to school and children often skip breakfast for many reasons. Some have early morning extracurricular activities or have to make an early bus. Others may be trying to finish homework or a project from the night before.

Because parents and caregivers cannot always control what their children choose for lunch, breakfast is even more important. So, why not set the alarm clock for 15 or 20 minutes earlier? This way, both parents and kids have more time in the morning and can choose meals that are fast and nutritious, like the combinations below:

  • Low-sugar, whole-grain cereal, low fat milk, and sliced banana.
  • Oatmeal with fruit and low fat milk. Choose plain quick oats and add in a small amount of honey and fruit, and pop into the microwave. Most are ready in minutes.
  • Whole wheat toast with peanut butter.
  • Yogurt (buy it plain, since many yogurts have a surprisingly high amount of sugar), and mix in honey, nuts and fruit.

These are all quick and easy and if necessary, can be eaten in the car or on the bus.

If your child brings lunch, there are many options for a healthy meal. Containers with compartments or small individual containers make it easy to keep a variety of foods separate. Here are some healthy lunchtime ideas:

  • Turkey in a whole wheat wrap stuffed with lettuce and tomato and smeared with a bit of honey mustard.
  • Shredded white meat chicken with chopped up vegetables, such as celery and baby carrots.
  • Tuna pouches packed in water, or tuna mixed with low fat mayonnaise and vegetables.
  • Salad greens with sliced hard boiled eggs, low fat cheese, and low fat dressing.

Add in some tasty but nutritious snacks such as nuts, nectarines, grapes and dried fruit (with no sugar added).

Besides providing the right foods for optimal learning, it’s also important for children to consume enough liquids. The CDC found that “adequate hydration may also improve cognitive function in children and adolescents, which is important for learning.

 Because of the high sugar content, juice should be limited, or cut with water. Look for alternatives for your child. Some children may find plain water distasteful, but drop some blueberries or strawberries into the cup, and they may find it more appealing. Give them a straw, and then let them poke holes and mash the fruit to release its natural flavors.

Once children get into the habit of taking the time to eat a healthy meal, it will become another part of their routine. Parents can set a good example by eating breakfast with their children and packing some of the same meals for their lunches. This way, healthy choices will become a family affair.

Written for Roanoke Valley Family magazine in Virginia.

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