As parents, we would all consider it important to feed our children a good diet so they grow up physically healthy and strong. But how much do we think about food to feed the brain? We often say childrens’ brains are like sponges soaking up loads of information and as a result the brain uses up enormous amounts of energy.
It is important to consider the role of nutrition and diet in behaviour, and the factors that effect brain health. What we feed our children can have an impact on their mood, concentration, attention span and the ability to learn.
As our children grow and become more independent of us, their behaviour changes and they are able to make more decisions for themselves but also ‘push the boundaries’ of behaviour finding out how far they can go! Children often experience mood swings and sometimes erratic behaviour but cannot express how they are feeling through words. Inevitably it is their actions that we take note of especially if they are trying our patience!
The importance of breakfast
Breakfast is an important meal for everyone including children. If breakfast is skipped then blood sugar levels can fall rapidly leading to symptoms including anxiety, aggression, lack of concentration, fatigue, headaches, panic attacks, tears and mood swings. If children find it difficult to eat in the morning, offer lighter foods such as dried or fresh fruit, yoghurts, oatcakes or rice cakes spread with a little butter which may go down better.
Porridge is a great food to start the day made with milk, and fruit can be added eg mashed banana, grated apple or dried fruit to sweeten it naturally.
Eggs are a good protein food – boiled, scrambled or poached.
If toast is not acceptable try pitta breads or bagels instead.
Weetabix or Ready Brek or Oatabix with milk/soya milk and raisins
Plain yoghurt with added fruit – apple puree or mashed berries
Cheese or ham sandwich made with wholemeal or granary bread
A pure fruit juice counts as one of your 5 a day but dilute juice half and half with water because it is quite sugary
Try to avoid sugary breakfast cereals and juice drinks that have added sugar. Excess sugar leads to unhappy, hyped up kids and causes a rollercoaster of blood sugar levels which makes it difficult for children to concentrate.
For many children eating the conventional three meals a day is not suitable. They use vast amounts of energy running around and just growing so ‘grazing’ may be a better option. Children are often really hungry by the time first break comes around. Find out what your school will allow children to bring from home. After all, a healthy snack can make a big difference to behaviour in the classroom, so is beneficial for teachers too! Good snacks to keep them going but which are also good for blood sugar balance include:
Half an avocado pear
Rye cracker or breadsticks with cottage cheese or hummous
Plain yoghurt/fromage frais with fresh fruit added
Cubes of cheese with grapes
Vegetable sticks: pepper, cucumber, celery, carrot
Homemade flapjack with dried fruit such as sultanas or dates.
Lots of schools have changed their menus for school lunches and offer healthy options. However, whether your children opt for those or not is another matter! If you give your child a packed lunch, bear in mind the following ideas that will provide them with good nutrients and energy for the afternoon ahead:
A carbohydrate such as bread (bagels, pitta wraps or sandwiches – preferably wholemeal or granary), pasta, rice
Protein: fish (tuna or salmon), meat (lean ham or chicken) cheese or beans (hummous). Protein helps slow release of sugar from food and is more filling
Fruit: A piece of fruit provides vitamins and minerals – let your children choose their favourite which will encourage them to eat it.
Vegetables: vegetable sticks or salad items such as cherry tomatoes, lettuce leaves and cucumber
Drink: preferably water. Juice drinks contain a lot of sugar it is a good idea to get children used to the idea of drinking plain water.
Treat: not necessarily every day but a child can look forward to this. This does not have to be a chocolate bar – try a homemade flapjack or muffin so you know what has gone into it. Let the children know that the treat is for after they have finished everything else!
Other factors to consider:
Essential Fatty acids (EFAs also known as beneficial oils)
EFAs have to be obtained through the diet but many children are lacking Omega 3 in because of changes in our eating habits, including the consumption of oily fish. There are many scientific studies underway looking at the role of fatty acids on mental development and behaviour. Unfortunately canned oily fish such as tuna and salmon are low in EFAs. Try introducing your children to oily fish but making it more palatable: homemade fishcakes are a great for them to get used to the taste; breadcrumb small fillets of salmon or mackerel or fold flaked fish into rice and pasta dishes.
If they refuse to eat any fish, look out for other food that may have EFAs added but bear in mind these are likely to be in tiny amounts. You could also consider a fish oil supplement- there are excellent ones one the market but again check the label for unnecessary flavourings or additives.
It is essential to make sure children are hydrated properly. Dehydration can affect the ability to concentrate and can contribute to constipation, fever, headaches and dry skin. Encourage your child to take a bottle to school (500ml) and finish by the end of the day.
Boosting nutrient value of meals
Add extra vegetables and salad and fruit at all meals
When having chocolate offer fruit as well, or yoghurt so your child associates a treat with a healthy snack too.
Strike when they are hungry! Offer vegetable sticks or fruit only – it they are really hungry they will eat it.
Puree vegetables into gravies if your children won’t eat greens.
Use wholemeal versions in food eg bread, rice, pasta
Offer smaller portions of meat and add more vegetables to the plate
A note on fizzy drinks…….
Avoid fizzy drinks! Many fizzy drinks contain caffeine which can play havoc with your children’s behaviour (have you ever had a caffeine buzz after a coffee? Remember how it can leave you feeling shaky and hyped up?). They also contain either high amounts of sugar or artificial sweeteners that can be 180 times sweeter than sugar and will encourage children to become reliant on sweet fixes.
Small changes to the diet can make a big difference to the wellbeing of your children. Introduce changes gradually and explain to children why you are offering healthy choices. Children often do not understand why they feel ratty and irritable after a sugary snack but know they don’t like the feeling, so letting them make decisions about food will ensure that they continue to make good choices as they grow up.