Your Child’s Brain on Breakfast

By now, most kids are in the daily grind of waking up, going to school, participating in an after-school activity, doing homework, and going to bed.  Our kid’s schedules are fuller than ever, and young minds need solid nutrition to keep up with the flurry of activity, especially first thing in the morning.

After fasting all night long, the brain needs fuel for the new day. Brains on breakfast are 20% more active than those without.  Breakfast is literally breaking the fast from sleep.  Without it, the brain is focused on survival and getting more energy – not thinking.  In fact, studies have shown that without breakfast, children have:

  • Slower memory recall
  • Poor concentration
  • Difficulty understanding new information
  • Poor test performance
  • Headaches
  • Higher likelihood of weight gain or obesity

Good nutrition plays a huge role in academic success, and a healthy breakfast can start your child off on the right foot.  So what exactly does your child’s brain need at breakfast time, in order to perform at its best? A combination of carbohydrates and protein:

Carbohydrates are the preferred energy source for the brain. They’re digested quickly and jump-start thinking and learning.  Look for whole grains, milk, fruits and vegetables.

Here’s a good rule of thumb for shopping for healthy carbohydrates: purchase food that is closest to its natural state. It’s healthier.  For example, fresh cherries purchased in the produce department are in their natural state.  A cherry poptart is not.   When shopping for cereals, choose those with 12 grams of sugar or less.  Added sugars will give a quick burst of energy but then wear off quickly and lead to fatigue.  Whole grain cereals and breads contain fiber, which take longer to digest and will slowly release energy to the brain.  You can identify whole grain products by finding “whole wheat” or “whole grain” as the first ingredient. Or you can look for this handy yellow symbol, which indicates that the food is made with whole grains:

Protein helps kids maintain the level of energy and fullness they need to get them through the morning.  It is found in meat, eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese and is essential for brain function. Protein contains amino acids, which are the building blocks of neurons (essential for learning!).  Amino acids in protein act as antioxidants that protect the brain from DNA changes or other cells from damage.  Protein is the most overlooked nutrient at breakfast! 

Now that we’ve talked about the categories of foods that help kick-start the brain in the morning, how do you put it all together to form a meal?  Here are some breakfast ideas that are quick, simple, and good for the brain:

  • Cereal high in fiber and low in added sugars, with low-fat milk and berries (look for cereal with 12 grams of sugar of less and at least 5 grams of fiber per serving)
  • Yogurt parfait – plain yogurt, fruit, and low-sugar granola or Kashi Crunch cereal
  • Whole wheat toast, eggs, and  a banana
  • Whole wheat bagel with cheese or eggs with low-fat milk
  • Peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat English muffin with low-fat milk
  • Grilled cheese on whole wheat bread and 100% fruit juice
  • Low sugar oatmeal topped with nuts and berries
  • Scrambled eggs with pre-chopped veggies (chop vegetables like peppers and squash a couple of days in advance and seal in an air-tight container)
  • An apple topped with peanut butter and low-fat milk
  • Whole grain waffle with banana slices and peanut butter

While these nutritious foods are especially important for breakfast, it’s important to keep the momentum going for the rest of the day. Many studies have shown that children who eat healthy, balanced breakfasts and lunches aren’t just more alert throughout the day; they also earn better grades than those who don’t eat healthy.

So while you’re planning your child’s school, sport, and extracurricular activities for the day, week, month, and year, schedule time for healthy meals too.  It can mean the difference between a lethargic child and an actively engaged kid who is ready to learn and play.  If you’re looking for more helpful tips and ideas, is a great resource for daily meal plans, healthy recipes, and general tips.

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Debby Boutwell, RD

About the Author: Debby Boutwell, RD

Debby Boutwell, RD, CSP, LD is a clinical dietitian in the division of Nutrition Therapy at Cincinnati Children's. She has been a dietitian for 14 years and enjoys working with her patients in the Neuromuscular Center.

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  1. Eva Lloyd September 20, 05:29
    A comprehensive article that is a great guide for any Mom. Easy to read and follow.