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Food for Learning
Everyone has heard and read the issues regarding childhood obesity and the long-term effects of poor childhood eating habits. But one sorely neglected topic, which should be part of this conversation, is the overall effect of bad nutrition and learning ability in our schoolchildren. Specifically, the lack of a healthy breakfast – or any morning food at all – and the impact on school success, especially in the youngest of students.

Of all the meals in our day, breakfast is probably the most important, yet it is also the most neglected. At no other time of the day have we gone without nourishment during the eight or more hours between bedtime and morning, yet the number of us who postpone or ignore a morning meal is huge. While most adults will grab some form of nourishment on the way to work or at the office, children don't have this luxury and as a result, many will not eat until the school lunch period. As a result, school learning and achievement has to be affected. Unfortunately, most of the current research is studying health effects of school lunches, but little is being done to study nutrition and learning abilities, even though it is well documented that hunger affects brain growth and development. There are no statistics available to determine the number of children who go to school unfed, but teachers will readily admit it is a far greater percentage than we believe; hungry children are found in all school systems, poor and wealthy, public and private. Reasons range from a lack of food in the household to a disinterest in an early meal, but the outcome is the same – a decreased ability to concentrate on lessons and activities due to low energy because the body has not been properly fueled for the first few hours of the day. After an early spurt of energy released from body stores by the physical activity of getting to school, this energy level drops once a child is confined to his desk, and his body begins to signal hunger as a way to increase his energy once again. When this need is not met, a child will then have trouble focusing on anything other than the next meal. For many of these children, the hour before lunch is consumed with sluggishness and thoughts only of the upcoming lunch period. At that point, the ability to choose healthy versus snack foods available in many school cafeterias is overruled by the need to eat anything quickly.

What your child eats can have the same effect. If his breakfast is a toaster pastry, highly sweetened cereal or just a slice of toast, his energy will rise to meet the needs of getting school, but will drop just as quickly once it has been digested. Recognizing the need for a midmorning snack, many teachers allow for young students to bring snacks from home, yet parents will send sugary or high fat foods such as chewy fruit snacks or prepackaged cheese/cracker combos, believing them to be as healthy as the packaging suggests. Even little packaged fruit cups may contain high fructose corn syrup to sweeten the taste. So while these snacks might help to offset midmorning hunger, the effect is still temporary when attention to lessons is needed.

What can parents do to increase their child's ability to learn? Start by providing your child with a breakfast that contains high quality protein (at least 5 grams), complex carbohydrates and low sugar. The following suggestions are fast, easy and will have a lasting impact on learning abilities.

• Crockpot oatmeal: this is the easiest of meals because it can be set-up quickly the night before. There are many recipes on the Web (keyword: crockpot oatmeal), but the easiest is:

o 1 cup steelcut (also called Irish or Scottish; important for slow cooking) oats
o 4 cups water
o pinch of salt
o 2 tbsp. honey or brown sugar

Spray your crockpot with cooking spray to decrease sticking; cook on the lowest setting for 6-8 hours. Have available raisins, dried cranberries, nuts, fresh fruit, etc. to add when serving. I use this as a cool weather breakfast staple in my house.

• Quiche: easier than it sounds and a wonderful high protein meal. Cooked in advance on a Sunday (designated for breakfast, not snacking!) and it can be used for a few hot breakfasts during a busy week.

o 1 premade piecrust—available in supermarket coolers, usually where biscuits are located
o 4 eggs
o 1 ½ skim or lowfat milk
o 3 tbsp whole wheat or all purpose flour
o 1 tsp salt
o 1 tsp dry mustard (optional)

Put piecrust into pie plate, add options such as diced ham, pre-shredded cheese, precooked onions, mushrooms, turkey sausage (to eliminate extra moisture), or anything else your child will accept. Whisk together the eggs, milk, flour, salt and mustard. Add to the crust and bake for 45-50 minutes at 375 F. Let cool, cut into 6-8 wedges, cover and refrigerate. Microwave a single wedge in the morning for 1 ½ to 2 minutes on reheat.

• One of my newest favorites is a single microwave muffin egg cooker. Available inexpensively at kitchen gadget stores, it is simply designed to microwave an egg in 60 seconds into a round, sandwich-sized scramble to put on an English muffin (like a fast-food breakfast sandwich). You can toast the muffin while the egg is cooking and add a slice of sandwich ham/cheese to add protein, all within 2 minutes.

All of these recipes will supply more lasting nourishment than a simple bowl of cereal not only because they contain more calories (energy) but also high protein, which digests at a slower rate. A serving of fruit/juice and or a glass of lowfat milk will make a fast, easy and welcomed breakfast for any child.

For those who claim no appetite in the morning, eating breakfast is a habit that is easily acquired, and providing cereal alternatives will encourage the process. With children, as well as adults, the outcome is an increased productivity when it is needed most.

Article written October 2010