Nutrition is huge for learning. There is now tons of research showing that a good quality diet has a measurable impact on behavior, attention and learning. And within the group of kids I see for learning evaluation, MOST of the parents are well aware of what a “good” diet is and strive to get good foods into their kids. Still, the basics bear repeating. When a busy parent is trying to get the kids through breakfast while packing lunches and doing every other little thing that needs to be done, there can be drift. One day, a parent looks at the table and realizes she has drifted to serving instant oatmeal with brightly colored little marshmallow dinosaurs. When that happens, it’s time to correct the course (again) (I’ve been there).
There are some really basic nutritional strategies that support readiness for learning:
- Eat Breakfast. There are numerous studies that show that kids who eat breakfast have better attention and learn better. This is why so many public schools provide breakfast to low-income students. Hungry kids can’t learn. If your child balks at breakfast because he does not feel hungry yet (probably because he is simply not fully awake yet), see if he can eat a banana and some nuts in the car on the way to school (when he just might be finally feeling more awake). Or try a protein bar or a smoothie as he is walking into school (because walking does tend to wake a person up). Breakfast is important and has to be non-negotiable. This is much easier said than done with some kids, but once the habit is established, their bodies get used to eating in the morning. Then it is easier
- Eat Protein at breakfast. Carbohydrates, particularly the white flour in waffles, pancakes and many cereals, are not too different from sugar in our systems. It is important to add protein. This might be a simple as spreading nut butter on the waffle. My daughter (henceforth referred to as the Queen) is not big on breakfast foods, but does like soup in the morning. She will eat a chicken, rice and vegetable soup (from a can if I have nothing home-made). Good enough. Her school allows healthy snacking at any time during the school day, so I pack a few extra snacks if I think the soup won’t hold her till lunch.
- Eat Lunch. This is actually tougher, because parents are not at school to check what is actually eaten. Sometimes they know because most of the lunch comes home. Sometimes parents just have to hope. But send a good lunch and emphasize the importance of eating most of it. Have a teacher or aide monitor occasionally if you think your child is not eating much. Since recess follows lunch in most schools, some kids rush through lunch to get out and play.
- Eat Protein at lunch too. Research shows that protein increases alertness while carbohydrates increase drowsiness. A breakfast of cereal and a lunch of macaroni and cheese may not be good enough. Try to get some lean protein in. I send salmon, grilled chicken, bean dips or hummus. The Queen likes a steady turnover in her lunch options, so this can be a chore.
- Increase fruits and vegetables. I know you know it, but for so many of us, fruits and vegetables are a little
more work, particularly for fussy eaters. If your child only eats two fruits and one vegetable, pat yourself on the back and serve them every day. If your child does not eat any, check out the strategies in Baby Bites by Nonna Joanne Bruso. She has some fun strategies and really useful tips.
- Try for whole grain and complex carbohydrates. The white grains are a little too similar to sugar in the bloodstream.
- Have an After School Snack. If a child did not eat a good lunch, this is essential. If the child did eat a good lunch, this may still be essential. And snacks should not be cookies, candy, or chips. Those are treats. Snacks are fruit, veggies, nut butters, whole grains and other good stuff.
The above strategies are the broad brush strokes for nutrition. But there are not that many of them listed. It’s just good to re-visit them every once in a while, then reset the dietary course at your house if you realize the family (or certain members) have drifted.
And what do parents report to me about nutritional changes:
As soon as we added protein in the morning, the teacher reported a positive difference in his focus.
The afternoon snack was a great idea. As soon as she got in the car, I fed her. She is so much less irritable in the afternoon now.
We made some big dietary changes for the whole family due to my wife’s health. We all feel better. Now, if our daughter does have a heavy carbohydrate meal, she is noticeably spacey for at least 24 hours. It was hard to tell what was causing it before.
And what about the new fad of elimination diets? Gluten-free? Goat’s milk instead of cow’s milk? Paleo? What to do about sugar? There is so much more to nutrition, so I will certainly add information in later blogs.
And just so you know I understand, here is a link to the trials and tribs of feeding kids.