By: LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed
“As you eat, so shall you think.”
Every day people make decisions about what to eat and these foods have a direct impact on their quality of life. In fact, parents make most of these decisions for their children. Parents have to feverishly create a breakfast, pack snacks, and make lunches before rushing out the door to school. To save time, maximize my children’s learning potential for the day, and give them a variety of foods daily, I created the Healthy Food List, an easy-to-read table that lists ideas for certain types of foods for meals and snack. I hope it helps you as much as it has helped me.
The brain needs certain amounts and specific types of nutrients daily in order to function properly. Too much or too little (deficiency) of any nutrient can affect the brain, and thus learning, negatively. If we’re feeding our children the same foods daily, they might be missing some important nutrients. These nutrients greatly impact which chemicals, and how many, are being manufactured in the brain, chemicals that control daily behaviors or states of mind. They can make us more alert and focused, more relaxed, hyperactive, more attentive, or down-right sleepy and unfocused.
Feed your children a great brain breakfast because teachers can do amazing things with well-fed brains! This includes a high fiber, low-fat, low-sugar carbohydrate along with some protein. Avoid sugary pastries and sugary cereals because, within 30-60 minutes, blood sugar will drop quickly leaving the child with less energy, more easily frustrated and with a feeling of hunger. Breakfast enhances cognitive performance, particularly on tasks requiring processing of a complex visual display. Boys and girls show enhanced spatial memory and girls show improved short-term memory after consuming oatmeal, which provides a slower and more sustained energy source and consequently may result in cognitive enhancement compared to low-fiber, high glycemic ready-to- eat cereal (Mahoney, Taylor, Kanarek, & Samuel, 2005). It’s the most important meal of the day, and your brain can never regain the positive effects that breakfast leaves on it even if you eat a good lunch. See the Healthy Food List for specific breakfast foods.
Fruit or 100% fruit juice (with calcium) or milk + protein + whole grain = GREAT BREAKFAST
Neurons or brain cells need the following two main fuels in order to function – oxygen and glucose. Neurons cannot store these fuels, rather they use them up readily. A constant supply of these fuels is required for the brain to function. This indicates that in addition to eating three balanced meals a day, the brain benefits from several small snacks so that there is a supply of glucose when needed. Children’s brains need a refill on glucose about every 60-90 minutes. Cognitive performance can suffer when blood glucose concentrations are low (Gold, 1995). We believe that children in grades K-12 need a powerful brain snack either before or after lunch (depending on the time of lunch). The following list of foods has great choices for snacks: nuts of any kind as long as there are no
allergies; bananas, apples, raisins, grapes, oranges, strawberries, blueberries, and other fresh fruits; carrots, celery, red peppers, broccoli, cucumbers, and other vegetables (even pack a dip if kids must have it); whole wheat crackers and real cheese; yogurt with no food coloring and low sugar; whole wheat pretzels; trail mixes; pretzel rods wrapped in turkey; pita bread and hummus as dip; popcorn; soy chips or vegetable chips.
Protein + Whole Grain = GREAT SNACK
If you pack a lunch, make sure it has a protein, a complex carbohydrate, and very little sugar. Studies by Connors at the National Institute of Mental Health indicate that when sugar is eaten with a protein, the learner benefited by being more alert. Sugar is utilized differently by the brain when carried in with a protein (Connors, 1989). After consuming a protein, the brain can be more alert, focused, and have more lasting stamina. Remember to pack a variety each day rather than the same thing each day. See the Healthy Food List in order to know the best foods to pack for lunch.
Protein + whole grain + fruit + vegetable + milk = GREAT LUNCH
Send a clean water bottle to school every day. Children need the opportunity to drink water throughout the day. Students who are well hydrated are more friendly, well-reasoned, attentive, and coherent. Research in young adults shows that a mild dehydration (1-2% of body weight loss) can lead to a significant impairment in cognitive function (D’Anci, Constant, Rosenberg, 2006). If access to water is restricted, the stress response can kick in. Within 5 minutes of consuming water, there is a marked decline in the stress hormone, cortisol. Available drinking water reduces the body’s physiological response to adverse situations. We believe that water should be readily available for all students to consume when they are thirsty throughout the day.
Foods have a direct impact on our state of mind, and we need our children to be in the most alert, focused, positive learning state of mind. By feeding them a variety of healthy foods daily and making sure they are getting the amount of foods listed on the New Food Pyramid, your child’s learning can be maximized.
Healthy Food List
Created By: LeAnn Nickelsen
Editor & Contributor: Karen Siclare – MS Nutritionist
Breakfast Food Ideas
Choose one item from Complex Carbs and one from Proteins.
Add one piece or 1 cup of fruit, or 4 oz. of 100% fruit juice (with calcium) or 1 cup of organic milk unsweetened
- Any fruit (berries, citrus, applesauce, etc.)
- Oatmeal or cream of wheat
- Whole wheat toast, whole grain tortilla
- Whole grain waffles and pancakes
- Cereals (6+ grams of protein, 5+ grams of fiber, low fat & <6 grams of sugar):
- Shredded-Wheat Cracklin Oat Bran
- Grape Nuts Kashi Go Lean
- Wheat and Raisin Chex Optimum
- Low-Sugar Granola Cheerios-Whole Grain
- Heritage Brand Cereals Peanut Butter Bumpers
- Mighty Bites
- Peanut Butter (natural) – 2 Tbsp.
- Almond Butter-2 Tbsp.
- Greek low-sugar yogurt (<15 grams) organic
- Eggs (2)
- Turkey bacon
- Low fat, no nitrate bacon
- Low-fat milk (organic)
- Cottage cheese (organic)
- Chicken sausages (<5 grams fat and <300 mg sodium)
Lunch Food Ideas
protein + whole grain + fruit + vegetable + milk
- Sandwiches with whole wheat wraps & breads plus low-fat, no-nitrate meats (turkey, chicken, roast beef)
- Peanut butter and banana sandwich
- Tuna on whole wheat crackers
- Healthy, low-salt soups with protein in them
- Hummus and whole wheat crackers or pitas with 2 slices meat
- Hard-boiled eggs (2)
- Grilled chicken fajitas
- Quesadillas (beans, cheese)
Fruit/Veggie Side – 2
- Fruit Ideas:
- apple slices
- dried fruits (raisins, apricots, etc.)
- berries, applesauce (no sugar added)
- fruit smoothie (low sugar)
- grapes, etc., low-sugar fruit cups
- Vegetable Ideas:
- cucumber slices with low-fat Ranch
- celery with low-fat cream cheese or peanut butter
- sliced red peppers
- cherry tomatoes, etc.
- Greek low-sugar yogurt
- Trail mix
- String cheese (organic)
- Low-fat nachos with salsa
- Graham crackers
- Whole Grain Fig Newtons
- Whole grain fruit and nut bar
- Veggie chips or natural chips
- Dry granola cereal
- 100% fruit leathers or bars
- Low-fat popcorn
- Bananas with chocolate peanut butter
- Nuts and chocolate chips
*Natural means no preservatives or food colorings, little-to-no enriching or processing, no trans fats and no artificial sweeteners.
Connors, Keith. (1989). Feeding the Brain: How Foods Affect Children. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.
D’Anci KE, Constant F, Rosenberg IH. (2006) Hydration and cognitive function in children Nutr Rev. Oct; 64 (10 Pt 1): 457-64
Mahoney CR, Taylor HA, Kanarek RB, Samuel P. (2005) Effect of breakfast composition on cognitive processes in elementary school children. Physiol Behav. 2005 Aug 7; 85(5): 635-45