Little kids aren't known for their ability to sit still, concentrate and focus—and yet that's often what's needed to succeed in school. What many parents don’t realize is the huge role that proper nutrition plays in this.
Here are my top five nutrition tips to help your child focus and concentrate in school.
1. Serve a breakfast with staying power We all know that breakfast is the most important meal of the day (it really is!), especially for kids on school days. A breakfast with “staying power” will keep your kids satisfied and energized for at least a couple of hours. It will also keep their blood sugar levels stable and their tummies full. Staying-power foods contain at least one of these key nutrients:
a) Dietary fibre (especially soluble fibre) provides a sense of satiety (a feeling of fullness), slows digestion and stabilizes blood sugar and energy levels. Fibre-rich foods to include in breakfasts include rolled oats; nuts, seeds and nuts/seed butter; beans/lentils; fruit and veggies; and high fibre, low-sugar breakfast cereal.
b) Protein not only builds and maintains our body’s tissues, but it also keeps kids (and adults) full and satisfied for longer, because it’s digested slowly. Good protein-rich breakfast foods are eggs; dairy foods like milk, yogurt, cottage cheese and cheese; nuts and seeds; tofu; beans and lentils; and some whole grains such as quinoa and oats.
c) Dietary fat is naturally occurring in animal foods and some plant foods too. Aside from the many roles that dietary fat plays in the body, fat is digested slowly (like protein), which helps to keep kids full and satisfied, and helps to sustain their energy levels and keep hunger at bay. Foods that contain fat are include nuts/seeds/oils; avocado; eggs; and diary foods.
Ideas for breakfasts with staying power:
Pack a “snacky” lunch Snacky lunches are my favourite kind to pack, and my kids’ favourite type to eat! They create an opportunity to include lots of variety, colour, and texture, which makes kids’ lunches more appealing and increases the chances of them actually eating it. When I’m packing my kids snacky lunch, I usually use a bento box and I try to include five things:
1. Two protein-rich foods (things like leftover cut-up meat, leftover homemade chicken fingers, hard-boiled eggs, roasted chickpeas, cheese cubes, etc.)
2. At least one fruit (apple, pear, berries, peach, cut-up melon, grapes, etc.)
3. At least one veggie (carrot sticks, cucumber coins, sugar snap peas, radishes, pepper strips, etc.)
4. A dip (hummus, ranch, tzatziki, Greek yogurt + cinnamon dip, etc.)
Don’t worry about whether each food “fits” together—kids don’t care! The main thing is that you’re including a good balance of nutrients and lots of variety.
3. Make sure there’s enough omega-3 Many of us forget about omega-3—after all, we’re just trying to get semi-nutritious meals into our kids. But this is one nutrient that we don’t want to ignore. Omega-3s (specifically DHA and EPA), which are found in fatty fish like salmon, tuna, halibut, sardines, and trout, as well as walnuts, flaxseed, and Omega-3 enriched eggs, are key for your child's brain power, because they help to maintain memory, focus, concentration and mood. Serving fatty fish twice a week is the best way to meet omega-3 requirements. If fish just isn’t happening, that’s OK, but consider a regulated kid’s Omega-3 supplement, and ask your paediatrician or paediatric dietitian for guidance on dosage.
4. Minimize refined, processed and high sugar snack foods Although store-bought snack foods such as crackers, cookies, “fruit” snacks or higher-sugar granola bars are easy (and fine once in a while for fun), they tend to spike our kids’ blood sugar levels (which quickly drop thereafter) and don’t provide a whole lots of nutrition. Not to mention that they disrupt insulin regulation, and promote inflammation and oxidative stress (this does not help in the brain department!).
Instead, serve and pack nutrient-dense snacks—real foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, meat, beans, dairy etc. The essential nutrients found in these foods work together to not only boost your kids’ overall health, but also help them to concentrate and focus. My favourite snack combination is one with a protein-rich food paired with a fruit or vegetable. Think Greek yogurt + berries, or hummus and snap peas.
5. Include these 3 brain-boosting foods There are certain foods that contain nutrients and properties that have been shown to boost brain function, improve memory, and improve concentration and focus.
Berries: Anti-oxidant-rich berries (such as blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries) can help to protect your child’s brain from free-radical and oxidative damage. They’re also high in fibre!
Eggs: Eggs are a great source of protein, which can help to keep your child fuller longer, sustaining their energy levels and allowing them to focus and concentrate for longer periods of time. They are also rich in Vitamin A and D, choline (which can boost cognitive function) and contain lutein and zeaxanthin, which both promote healthy vision.
Fatty fish: Oily fish such as salmon, tuna, halibut and trout not only are some of the best sources of Omega-3 fat, but they’re also rich in vitamin D, iron and many other nutrients that can improve brain function (and health!). Aim for two servings per week.