Nutrition has a significant impact on our kids ability to focus and learn. What kids eat can either positively or negatively influence their academic performance and behavior. Existing data suggests that with better nutrition students are better able to learn, they have fewer absences, and their behavior improves, resulting in fewer disruptions in the classroom. Ask any teacher and they can tell you that there is a noticeable difference in behavior and readiness to learn between a child who eats well versus a child who has a lunchbox filled with sugary snacks and processed foods.
Recently on a grocery shopping trip I scoped out some potential snack foods to pack in school lunches for my girls. I decided to look at the nutrition on one snack in particular. It is a chocolate hazelnut spread that I’m sure you are familiar with. How bad could it be I thought…until I turned it around and looked at the nutrition facts label. A 2 Tablespoon serving has 21 grams of added sugars, equivalent to 5 teaspoons of sugar! This is as much added sugar as is recommended for most kids for an entire day. It’s delicious yes, but should be considered more of an occasional treat than a healthy everyday lunch or snack item.
I hate to pick on one item. This is just one of the many pre-packaged lunch/snack items marketed to us as “healthy” alternatives. Many of them are hardly more than refined flour and sugar, leaving us and our kids feeling lousy and ultimately depleted of energy.
Think about how you feel when you grab a coffee and a donut or sugary bar on the run. Do you feel focused and ready to tackle your day? You might initially, but then it doesn’t take long and you crash, and then look for that next cup of coffee and shot of sugar.
We want our kids to succeed in school and what they eat throughout the day is a key factor in helping them be successful. Here are some tips for setting your little ones up for learning at their highest potential:
1. Start with a healthy breakfast. A review of 50 studies showed that skipping breakfast hurts kids’ overall cognitive performance as shown through their levels of alertness, attention, memory, problem solving, and math skills. Eating breakfast regularly has been linked with improvement in academic performance and behavior, as well as their ability to learn.
A healthy breakfast includes a balance of good, healthy carbs, some protein, some healthy fat, and a fruit or vegetable. An easy to fix example would be scrambled eggs with a little cheese, wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla, with a banana on the side.
2. Think about balance when packing lunches and snacks too. The same approach should apply to lunches too. Balance means including some healthy whole grain carbs, some lean protein/dairy, and a fruit and/or vegetable. The same balanced approach is nutritionally wise when packing snacks too. They should include some healthy carb and some protein.
3. Skip the sugary drinks and snacks. Aim to avoid high sugar, high sodium processed foods as much as possible. We have a tendency to think “oh it’s ok, their kids they can handle it”, but really sugary junk does them no favors and can have a negative impact on their ability to learn.
4. Involve your child and give them choices as much as possible. Use the list below to give you some ideas of what you could offer. Ask your kids their preference for several items from each of these categories and keep those on hand.
Fruits: strawberries, grapes, cantaloupe, watermelon, apples, pineapple, honeydew melon, mandarin oranges, any canned fruit packed in its own juice, applesauce, and dried fruit.
Vegetables: baby carrots, celery, edamame, cucumbers, cauliflower, broccoli, grape tomatoes, & tossed salad,
Dairy: string cheese, cubed cheese, yogurt, fruit & veggie dips, cottage cheese, & yogurt parfaits
Protein: rolled deli meat and cheese, tuna salad, chicken salad, beans, nuts, eggs, nut butters, rotisserie chicken, salmon
Grains: whole wheat pasta salad, whole wheat bread, whole wheat tortillas, Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies, pretzels, Triscuits or Wheat Thins, popcorn
5. Pack a reusable bottle of water to keep kids hydrated. A study published just this Summer in the American Journal of Public Health showed that more than half of all children and adolescents in the U.S. are not getting enough hydration—likely because they’re not drinking enough water. The study looked at over 4,000 children and adolescents aged 6 to 19 years. Even mild dehydration has been shown to have a negative impact on our bodies including headaches, irritability, poorer physical performance, and possibly our ability to learn. I get asked a lot what is the best beverage and my answer, for both kids and adults, is that water is the best choice. The earlier we can start making water our go-to beverage the better.
As parents we want to do all we can to help our kids reach their fullest potential in school. Good nutrition provides that base so they can be prepared and focused to learn everyday. Not a parent yet or have kids that have flown the coop? Let these same suggestions apply to your lunches and snacks.