Breakfast Brain Foods: How to Set Your Children Up for Success at School | Kitchen Explorers | PBS Food

Breakfast Brain Foods: How to Set Your Children Up for Success at School

Is your child struggling in math? Breakfast may be to blame.
A small study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that children who ate breakfast did better on math tests than those who skipped. During the test, researchers monitored the children’s brain electricity in the regions used for solving math problems. The U.S.D.A. reported that kids who skipped breakfast had to “exert more effort to perform the ‘mental math’ that the tests required, and to stay focused on the task at hand,” than breakfast eaters, who also received better test scores. But we also know that their morning meal can’t just be a few sips or spoonfuls of carbohydrates, like juice or sugary cereal. Studies have shown that low-glycemic breakfasts (those that don’t cause a rapid rise in blood sugar) have an even greater positive effect on cognitive function.

Why is breakfast so important for kids?
Children break down sugar more quickly and sleep longer than adults, which means that by the time they wake up, their bodies are ravenous for energy. In order to feel energized and focused, they’re going to need some fuel.

Now that we know that breakfast is really important, what should we serve?

For an Outstanding Breakfast, Remember E.A.T.:
Energize: Give your kids enough food to energize them for the day. For school-aged children, Angela Lemond, registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, recommends a breakfast of “at least 300 calories and as much as 600 calories depending on age.”

Accessorize: Pick a protein, suggests Lemond, and then accessorize it with the rest of the food groups. It’s helpful to keep the U.S.D.A.’s MyPlate in your mind as a model: make ½ the plate fruits and vegetables, ¼ carbohydrates (preferably whole grains), ¼ protein and add a source of calcium like dairy. If your breakfast has at least three of these components, including a source of protein, Lemond says you’re good to go. These balanced meals help kids stay full and blunt an undesirable blood sugar spike and subsequent crash (the one that leads to grumbling tummies and grumpy personalities).

Tantalize: Kids, like adults, are visual eaters. If you give them something that looks yummy, they’re more likely to eat it. If you mix and match the following high-quality components, you’ll create an appealing and filling breakfast:

  • Protein: Eggs, lean meat, nuts or nut butters, seeds or seed butters, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, etc.
  • Carbohydrates: Whole grain breads, waffles, cereals, pancakes, popcorn, oatmeal, tortillas, etc.
  • Fruits: Whatever fruit they like – frozen, fresh, or canned (although rinse fruit that has been canned in syrup before you serve it)
  • Vegetables: Whatever vegetables they like – frozen, fresh, or canned. Keep in mind you can sneak produce like pumpkin puree and shredded zucchini into healthy breakfast treats like pumpkin pancakes and zucchini muffins (which can be made in advance and frozen).

Three of the Best Breakfast Brain Foods:

  1. Eggs: Eggs are an inexpensive, high-quality protein, which “may help keep people fuller longer than other common breakfast foods like cereal,” says Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, blogger at and author of Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide. One more egg-ceptional bonus? “Eggs yolks also contain choline, a vitamin that may help improve memory,” she adds.

    Egg Muffin Sandwiches by PBS Parents Accessorize this fast and easy egg and cheese sandwich with a whole grain English muffin and veggies like tomato slices and spinach.

  2. Oats: While parents tend to think of cold foods like cereal as a good breakfast, kids often prefer hot food, according to a study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. If you’ve been neglecting oatmeal, try working this whole-grain cereal into your routine. The carbohydrates provide a quick energy boost, and the soluble fiber “helps keep bellies full and satisfied,” says Kuzemchak. For a complete breakfast, pair with fruit and protein from nuts, seeds, or nut butter.

    Blueberry Raspberry Oatmeal Muffins by PBS ParentsBlueberry-Raspberry-oatmeal-muffins-5 If you’re crunched for time in the morning, bake up these fruity oatmeal muffins in advance.

  3. Nuts and Seeds: They may be small, but they’re truly satisfying, so kids can stay full and focused all morning. Kuzemchak points out that, “walnuts and flaxseed are also good sources of omega-3 fatty acids that may contribute to brain health.” She likes to sprinkle nuts on cereal for more staying power, or blend them into smoothies.

    Peanut Butter Breakfast Shake by Sally Kuzemchak at Real Mom NutritionDSC_7355 If your child isn’t a huge breakfast fan, try making him or her a peanut butter breakfast shake.

Caroline Kaufman, MS, RDN, is a freelance writer, blogger, and nutrition counselor with a holistic approach to healthy living. She has an A.B. from Harvard University and an M.S. in Nutrition Communication from Tufts University.

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