Mornings can be madness. With children getting ready for school and grown-ups heading off to work, a sit-down breakfast may not be on the morning agenda. But eating breakfast is known to help improve concentration, creativity and problem-solving in children; and can help adults enhance productivity and control weight.
“You wouldn’t drive your car to work if it’s running on empty with no gas in the tank,” says Jessica Germanese, a registered dietitian. “Breakfast is filling your body’s tank—it wakes up your brain and gives your metabolism the fuel it needs.”
Yet some children and adults just don’t feel like eating first thing in the morning. Forcing food on a child is not a good idea, says Cassandra Saxon, a pediatric dietitian with Mercy Clinic Kids GI at Mercy Children's Hospital. However, “education on why breakfast is important could help them be more open to eating or drinking a small amount in the morning.”
Saxon recommends waking children up 30 minutes earlier if they simply aren’t hungry until they’ve been awake for a while, and making a healthy, appetizing breakfast that will tempt their tastebuds. For example, fruit and yogurt smoothies or peanut butter and jelly on a whole-grain English muffin may be appealing to kids.
Also appealing are the many sugary cereals advertised directly to children. But Saxon advises parents avoid serving these kinds of products. “A sugary cereal is no way to start the day,” she says. “Nutrition is not only about the present, it’s also about establishing healthy habits for the future. Should we eat chocolate chip cookies for breakfast? No. Just because they’re made into a cereal does not make it OK.”
Germanese recommends reading ingredient labels and avoiding cereals that list sugar among the top three ingredients. She suggests looking for whole-grain cereals with at least three grams of fiber and no more than five grams of sugar per serving. “Oatmeal is great,” she notes. “Even instant oatmeal is good, but make sure it doesn’t have added sugar.” Her other favorite breakfast choice: protein-rich eggs.
“Proteins are the body’s building blocks,” says Dr. Divya Chauhan, a family physician with Creve Coeur Family Medicine and on staff at St. Luke’s Hospital. “The brain needs neurotransmitters for optimal function and creates them with amino acids. Where do we get amino acids? From protein in our diet.” She adds that a study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that during an attention test conducted on children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), attention was significantly worse for those who had eaten a high-carbohydrate breakfast, compared to children who ate a high-protein breakfast.
“Everyone can benefit from a small amount of protein at every meal,” Saxon adds. “The amount of protein children need depends on their age, size and activity level. A basic rule for older children and adolescents is half a gram of protein per pound of healthy body weight. You want to spread this amount out throughout the day. Most people in the United States don’t have a problem getting enough total protein in a day; however, breakfast is often the lowest-protein, highest-sugar meal.”
A breakfast combination of protein, healthy fats and fiber is optimal for both children and adults. For those who simply don’t have a moment to sit down to a healthy breakfast, Germanese says a low-sugar granola bar, handful of nuts and piece of fruit can be a healthy breakfast on the go.
Most important, parents should model good dietary behavior. “Studies show that kids learn more about how and what to eat from their caregivers than anyone else,” Saxon says. “Start off your day and your child’s day in a healthy way.”