New shoes, backpacks, pencils and folders — you’ve done all your back-to-school shopping and are prepared for this school year. While you’re giving your kids all they need to start school, don’t forget about the most important thing for back-to-school success for your kids: brain food!
“Brains need energy,” says Brianna Henton, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Youth Wellness Manager with Milk Means More.
“People connect nutrition with performance and the ability to move our bodies, to run, jump and play. But brains need fuel as well for motor functions and vital skills so kids are ready to learn. Brains also need energy to stay focused and be alert and concentrate in the classroom or at home,” she says, adding that good nutrition helps problem-solving abilities and to maintain a consistent mood, too.
What’s the best way to get brain food to start the day? Breakfast, of course.
Why ‘brain food?’
A good breakfast each morning can provide your child with what they need to perform best in school. And there’s science to back that up.
Studies show a positive connection between eating breakfast and performing better on standardized math tests, and research shows that eating breakfast helps us all maintain a healthier weight. “Breakfast is a great time to enjoy nutritious foods, and if you take away that whole meal, that’s taking away one opportunity in the day to enjoy nutritious foods,” Henton says.
And, there’s something about breakfast that sets your child on course for better all-around nutrition throughout the day. “Breakfast eaters tend to eat more high-nutrient foods more regularly,” Henton says. “This includes whole-grains, fruits and dairy. But skipping breakfast means skipping the opportunity to have these nutritious foods.”
Students who eat breakfast each morning have lower rates of tardiness and absenteeism, as well as reduced visits to the school nurse. They’re also more attentive in the classroom and cause fewer distractions, Henton says. In effect, breakfast contributes to a positive learning environment for everyone.
Don’t wait until your child is hangry!
“Breakfast is important for kids and adults, but we don’t always make it a priority,” says Henton. “Some kids might wake up five or 10 minutes before getting in the car on the way to school and timing is essential. Kids might not be hungry when they first wake up, but we should acknowledge our hunger cues — and know that hunger can impact mood even before the tummy rumbles. It’s essential to have a backup plan.”
With just a little planning, you can pack some nutritious foods for your child to have on the go or when they arrive at school. “Applesauce and a cheese stick with a whole-grain muffin or bagel are some options that parents can pack,” she suggests.
If your child’s school offers breakfast — Henton says most Michigan schools do — by the time you get your child to school, you can rely on healthy options that meet school nutrition regulations.
“Your child will be offered whole-grain options that have fiber to help aid digestion, milk that packs a powerful punch of protein that will keep them full, plus fruits — all foods that provide the vitamins and minerals they need,” she says.
Choose three of the five
When planning breakfast, take cues from myplate.gov and select foods from at least three of the five food groups. That could mean whole grains, fruit and a dairy option.
Here’s what that might look like, with suggestions from Henton:
- Have oatmeal, which is a whole grain, made with milk with fruit on top, such as strawberries or blueberries.
- On the go, try a breakfast sandwich like a burrito made from a whole-grain tortilla with eggs and cheese, and an apple or banana.
- Or have a smoothie with fruit and yogurt, plus a granola bar or whole-grain muffin. (Bonus points if you can blend a vegetable, like spinach or carrots, into that smoothie!)
If breakfast isn’t an option, a hearty snack — like whole-grain crackers with peanut butter — can work. “Add to your shopping list an insulated bag with an ice pack and pop in a fruit cup and yogurt or a cheese stick or even milk,” Henton suggests.
A nice trend Henton is seeing at schools is “second chance breakfast.” If your child isn’t hungry at 7 or 7:30 or if the bus runs late, some schools are putting carts or kiosks in the hallways with nutritious foods to enjoy on the go.
Increasingly, Henton says, schools are seeing the value of feeding their students — and that school breakfasts can help close the gap on nutrition deficiencies, such as calcium, phosphorus, vitamin D and fiber, that Henton and her colleagues are seeing in kids. A simple bowl of whole-grain cereal with a cup of milk and sliced bananas goes a long way to help meet those nutritional needs, she says.
The real value of brain food
“Schools are realizing how much nutrition needs to be an integral part of the school day,” she says. “If we’re not feeding our kids’ brains, they aren’t going to do well or be fully attentive in their classrooms. Every day learning takes place, a child needs to be well-fueled with a healthy breakfast.”
Giving every child the advantage of starting their days with nutritious foods is an achievable goal, Henton says, and if your kids don’t like what they’re seeing in their school cafeteria, they should speak up.
“Student feedback is important,” she says. “Cafeteria workers don’t know they are serving options that the kids don’t like, so we should empower students to share feedback for menu options they’d enjoy. Each school is different and if we can accommodate needs and preferences of kids, it’s a win-win.”
Content sponsored by Milk Means More. Get more nutrition information (and recipes your family will love!) at milkmeansmore.org.