Breakfast on busy school mornings is more important than many parents and children realize. According to the American Dietetic Association, the brain needs a consistent carbohydrate source for fuel. Because the fiber in food slows down carbohydrate digestion, fiber helps provide the sustained energy a body needs for brain and nerve function. According to University of Utah dietitian (and my husband) Gene McMurtry, in addition to the student's brain working hard, a young growing body needs more protein per pound than adults do.
According to a study by the ADA published in a 2005 article titled "Breakfast Habits, Nutritional Status, Body Weight and Academic Performance in Children and Adolescents," children that eat breakfast are more likely to graduate and perform better on math tests and, in theory, keep trying longer, make better decisions and have more success overall.
McMurtry also states studies, such as "Breakfast skipping and health-compromising behaviors in adolescents and adults," published by the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (online at ncbi.nlm.nih.gov), show people who skip breakfast consume fewer calories, but are more likely to be overweight because they make worse health choices such as smoking, abusing alcohol and exercising less.
How does one fuel all of this amazing physiology in a few minutes before the dash to school? Here are a few tips for healthy school-day eating. Three words: Protein, fiber and complex carbohydrates.
By including whole grains and fresh fruit, but not juice, that supply the carbs and fiber and protein-rich foods such as eggs, nuts and dairy as a starting point, you can plan healthy menus for your children's dietary needs and taste preferences.
Tips for breakfasts
• The classic standby of oatmeal and milk with fruit makes a balanced meal.
• Serve a fruit smoothie with whole grain toast and peanut butter or a whole grain muffin and string cheese with fruit.
• Eggs, whole wheat toast and tangerine are a healthy choice as is a breakfast burrito made with whole grain tortilla; note: watch out for bacon, as it can have too much fat to be considered protein source, according to "Can Bacon Be Part of a Healthy Diet?" on webmd.com.
• Occasionally a protein bar with fruit and a breakfast "biscuit" like Belvita can be a good fast breakfast.
Lunch for school
For school lunches, continue on the same course with a bread, milk, vegetable or fruit and a protein source. A peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread with an orange and milk make a balanced meal. Use containers to keep sandwiches and fruit from getting squished, and an insulated lunch bag and a frozen blue ice block to keep foods cooler, especially if they contain mayonnaise or eggs.
McMurtry says to eliminate fruit juice or sugary drinks which are huge contributors to overweight in the U.S. according to Harvard Nutrition's "Sugary Drinks and Obesity Fact Sheet," online at hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/sugary-drinks-fact-sheet/. Include a piece of fresh fruit instead which digests slower and is more nutritious than fruit juice or fruit-flavored drinks or most canned fruits. If your child doesn't want to stand in line to buy milk, send a small frozen water bottle to keep the lunch cold and a string cheese. If you are adding chips, try the baked variety rather than fried. If you send a dessert, try baking homemade treats and substituting one-third of the enriched or all-purpose white flour in a recipe with whole wheat flour. Or send nuts or trail mix.
If they tire of sandwiches, try whole-grain bagels, muffins, breadsticks or crackers, tortillas or wraps. Many stores sell peeled hard-boiled eggs, string cheese, yogurt (Greek yogurt has more protein), packaged nuts and fresh fruit. For children, smaller apples, clusters of grapes (washed and cut with scissors to speed things up) and berries are sometimes preferred.
Don't forget an occasional love note in the lunchbox and drop in for lunch, get to know your children's classmates and check out the culture and goings-on in the cafeteria which influence your child's lunchtime more than you might suspect. Discover where lunches are stored — some sit out in the sun and need insulated containers — or ask the teacher if there is another location that will improve food safety.
Here is a quick, economical and nutritious morning smoothie recipe. Divide up the ingredients the night before to make it super-fast in the morning. I realize that there is a small amount of fruit juice involved and I'm OK with that fact because of the large proportion of yogurt, whole fruits and vegetables.
6-8 ounces yogurt
1 cup fresh or frozen spinach leaves
1 ripe banana
1 cup pineapple or fruit juice or liquid of your choice
1 cup frozen berries
½ cup wheat germ (optional)
In the jar of a blender add the yogurt, spinach, banana, juice and wheat germ, if included. Blend at high speed until smooth. Add berries and blend again. Pour into juice cups and serve with spoons. Makes 3-4 servings, add whole grain toast and peanut butter or toast and string cheese.
French Toast Cracked Wheat Cereal
¾ cup cracked wheat
2 cups water
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
1 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen
ground cinnamon to taste
ground nutmeg to taste
brown sugar, maple syrup or honey (optional)
With a hand-cranked grain mill set on extra-coarse, grind whole kernels of red or white wheat. Place in a large saucepan, add water and sea salt. Bring to boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer for 20–25 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in berries, nuts, spices and sweetner if desired. Add milk and you have a protein-rich hearty breakfast that tastes and smells divine.