Tammy Ames has been fighting a losing battle to get her 12-year-old daughter, Kristen, to eat breakfast, ever since Kristen was little. “She has never liked eating in the morning,” says Ames. “She says she’s not hungry. I don’t know if it’s genetic — her father is the same way.”
Ames believes breakfast is an important meal, but she also recognizes that it’s hard to eat when your stomach says no. So two years ago, when Kristen’s school changed the timetable to include a mid-morning nutrition break, she settled for packing a substantial two-part lunch so that Kristen can make up her missed meal at school. “Kristen does have a good snack at bedtime,” adds Ames. “I think that sort of holds her over in the morning.”
Elizabeth Frank, a dietitian in Lunenburg, NS, says Ames’ belief in the importance of breakfast is supported by research. “There have been studies showing that if kids don’t eat in the morning, they experience a drop in energy mid-morning and this has a negative impact on their grades and school performance.” Other studies have shown that teens who skip breakfast are twice as likely to have low iron stores (especially girls, who have higher iron needs) and are more likely to be described as “depressed, anxious, fidgety or irritable” by parents and teachers.
If your teen regularly refuses breakfast, you’ve probably found out that force-feeding is not going to work. Instead, look a little deeper to understand the reason.
She wants to lose weight. Teen girls, especially, are likely to see skipping breakfast as a relatively painless way to lose weight. Trouble is, it doesn’t work, says Frank. “People who don’t eat breakfast tend to overeat late in the day, often with a lot of junk food,” she says.
He’s crunched for time. Kids do have to get up a little earlier to eat breakfast, and at an age when many have trouble falling asleep at night and even more trouble waking up, an extra 10 minutes in the sack might seem a fair trade. What they need to understand is that lack of food will make their fatigue last longer.
Parents can help by making breakfast quick and easy:
• Plan with your child what he wants to eat. Have it ready for him when he gets up.
• Make it pleasant. “Sit down for a few minutes and talk about what your day is going to be like,” suggests Frank.
• Offer grab-and-go food. A muffin, slice of pizza or peanut butter and banana sandwich can all be munched on the way to school. Add hot chocolate in an insulated takeout mug for a hit of calcium.
She dislikes breakfast food. Open up the options, urges Frank. Ask your child what kinds of (reasonably nutritious) things she’d be willing to eat in the morning, stock up on the fixings and let her make what appeals. I once watched (with difficulty) a 13-year-old down leftover Greek salad with a heap of black olives on the side. Yep, for breakfast.
He can’t face food so early. For kids who truly can’t stomach food when they first wake up, ensure they can eat a bit later, when they’re ready. A substantial mid-morning snack, like Kristen eats, is one option. Kids with a long bus ride might be able to eat a packed breakfast on the bus or when they arrive at school. School breakfast programs are another great option, especially on days when there is early morning football or band practice.
The bottom line: The brain works best with regular deposits of energy, and after a long sleep it needs to gas up. When kids understand that breakfast has a measurable effect on memory, concentration and even grades, they may be willing to work with you to find a better solution than missing this important meal altogether.
Ideally, breakfast provides protein and carbohydrates, plus important nutrients like calcium, vitamin C and iron. Actually, fortified breakfast cereal is a pretty good choice, especially if you add some fruit or juice.
Some other options:
• muffins beefed up with nuts and raisins (add a piece of cheese for extra protein)
• grilled cheese sandwich
• leftover pizza
• smoothie with yogurt and fruit
• granola with yogurt or fruit
• scrambled egg wrapped in a tortilla (burrito)
• leftover mac and cheese
Tip: Add fruit, 100-percent fruit juice or milk to any breakfast to boost the nutritional value.