Pregnant women are normally advised to take folate (or folic acid, a type of Vitamin B) to help with the baby’s brain and spinal cord development. But while it’s important for babies to get this nutrient in utero, there are a host of other nutrients they need outside the womb for continued brain development.
In an article entitled “The crucial brain foods all children need” published in Harvard Health Publishing, Claire McCarthy MD writes, “The first 1,000 days of life are crucial for brain development—and food plays an important role.”
She explains that nerves grow and connect to create systems while the baby is in the womb up until he or she is two years old, ultimately defining how the brain will work for the rest of the person’s life. “Those connections and changes affect sensory systems, learning, memory, attention, processing speed, the ability to control impulses and mood, and even the ability to multitask or plan,” writes Dr. McCarthy. And these connections are permanent.
Nutrients for Brain Power
Aside from a nurturing environment, kids’ nutrition plays an important role in brain development. Dr. McCarthy enumerates the nutrients that are essential during the first 1,000 days:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B12
- Omega-3 fatty acids and other long-chain polyunsaturated fats
It may seem overwhelming but these are nutrients that can be found in a balanced diet of good protein (from lean meat, fish, and nuts), healthy fats (also from nuts and healthy oils), and plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Beyond the First 1,000 Days
Once kids reach school age, they need the right kind of food to power them through the day and keep them mentally alert at school—and that begins at breakfast. Food provides fuel for the brain, especially after fasting overnight. Studies have consistently shown that children who have breakfast perform better in school than those who skip it. For example, research at Harvard Medical School found that regularly skipping breakfast was linked to poorer school attendance, less verbal fluency, and more behavior problems.
But before you roll out the sugary cereal, know that what kids have for breakfast matters, too. In a study at Tuft’s University, children were divided into two groups. One had fiber-rich instant oatmeal for breakfast while the other had cereal that had a lower fiber and higher sugar content. The oatmeal group performed better on certain tests, including memory tests.
This goes to show that it’s better to go for breakfast foods that are made of the good stuff, rather than those that don’t offer much by way of nutrients and that have a high glycemic index (such as sugary cereals and pancakes with sweet syrup). Sugar bombs tend to cause a spike in blood sugar but a crash later on, leading to low energy and sluggishness as the day progresses.
Start your kids’ day right with protein- and fiber-rich foods that give the brain and the body a steady supply of fuel. Top it up with a healthy lunch that will keep them going the rest of the day—avoid anything high in fat or high in sugar. If the cafeteria doesn’t provide a lot of options, you may have to pack a lunch for your kids. Healthy kids’ snacks for school can likewise help them focus. At dinner, sit down together and eat a nutrient-rich meal as a family. A few ideas for each meal of the day:
- Whole-grain toast with natural peanut butter – White bread can provide some short-lived energy, so go for whole-grain bread. Natural peanut butter provides lots of protein without excess sugar.
- An omelet – Fill it with red and green bell peppers, tomatoes, and spinach or kangkong. You can also add a bit of cheese. The eggs are a great source of protein and memory-boosting choline.
- Breakfast parfait – Fill a cup with Greek yogurt, your kids’ favorite fruit, and top with homemade granola or some dried fruit and nuts.
- Oat-crusted chicken tenders – Instead of going for ready-made chicken nuggets, make your own chicken tenders coated in fiber-rich oatmeal and baked in the oven. Pair with brown rice and some mixed veggies.
- Fish wrap – Stuff a whole-wheat tortilla with baked fish fillet, mango salsa, and some black beans. Fish is a great source of omega-3. You can also use the tortilla for other wraps, like a turkey-and-hummus combo.
- Egg sandwich – As always, use whole-grain toast.
- Spaghetti and meatballs – Give them a dose of protein with some lean meatballs. You can even sneak in some grated carrots. Want to go extra healthy? Use whole-wheat spaghetti noodles or substitute with zucchini noodles.
- Roast pork – Fill a quarter of your kids’ plates with a lean protein like roast pork. (You can remove the fat before roasting for a healthier dish.) Then another quarter with something starchy, like sweet potatoes, quinoa, or other grains. Fill half the plate with vegetables.
- Salmon salad – Salmon is a great source of protein (sans the saturated fat) and omega-3. Serve it with a cauliflower puree and some mixed vegetables.
- Trail mix – You can make your own using high-fiber, low-sugar cereal, dried fruit, and nuts. You can even throw in some dark chocolate.
- Apple “cookies” – Top sliced apples with natural peanut butter and some dark chocolate chips.
- Flourless banana muffins – The basic ingredients are bananas, eggs, and oats. (You can also use this as a base for banana pancakes.)