On school mornings when I was a kid, my mom pulled out the skim milk, tossed me a box of cereal and told me to eat up before the bus rounded the corner. While I certainly wasn’t complaining about my Cocoa Pebbles or Captain Crunch, it was only after I started paying attention to nutrition that I realized my childhood breakfasts had all the makings of a bad day at school.
The human body is an incredibly resilient machine, but most people (kids included) are walking around in a state of less-than-optimal health. It doesn’t take a PhD to understand that symptoms like fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, depression and constipation do not make for an engaged, active and excited learner.
To prime the body for book smarts, one of the most important things to consider is blood sugar balance. In an ideal world, blood sugar would stay steady throughout the day with little increases after each meal.
Unfortunately, when the day starts with a sugary cereal and skim milk, blood sugar spikes early, which leads to a hard crash before lunch. But it’s not just sugary cereal that has this effect. Banana bread, muffins, croissants, granola bars, toast, orange juice, instant oatmeal and yogurt with added fruit all cause blood sugar to rise, resulting in “hangry” kids who can barely stay awake through third period.
This crash is called reactive hypoglycemia and the consequences include bad behavior, poor concentration, anxiety, mood swings and headaches, among other undesirable symptoms. People in this state will also crave more sweets as their brains look for another “quick hit” to keep them going.
Obviously, all of this spells disaster for students who are expected to sit still, pay attention and behave. Luckily, it’s fairly easy to right the ship and feed your kids a breakfast that will have them alert and ready to take on the day.
For starters, ditch any packaged foods, including processed cereals and bars. While convenient, they’re packed with sugar and lacking in the key nutrients necessary to keep your kid laser focused. It’s important to read labels, as sugar hides in many places and under many different names. Yogurt, often billed as a healthy food, can have upwards of 30 grams of sugar - as much as a can of soda!
When evaluating a packaged food, you should always check both the ingredient list and the nutrition label. When looking at the ingredients, it’s not a healthy choice if sugar is listed in the first five ingredients. On the nutrition label, keep in mind that every five grams of sugar is equivalent to one teaspoon, so in the yogurt example above, that’s SIX TEASPOONS of added sugar.
You wouldn’t give your child six teaspoons of sugar before they walk out the door, so don’t fall victim to the health-washing claims on labels that make false promises.
One way to eliminate the hassle of reading labels is to cook with whole foods in their unadulterated form. Pasture-raised eggs, sausage, greens and avocados all make great breakfast foods. Eggs can be quick cooked in grass-fed butter or hard-boiled, and any meats or veggies can easily be prepared in advance and reheated in the morning rush.
If your family prefers breakfast cereals, opt for steel cut oats or amaranth porridge that retains nutrients and top them with adequate fats and proteins to buffer the carb load. Nuts, seeds, ghee, unsweetened yogurt, whole milk and cinnamon can be added to soaked, overnight oats for a speedy breakfast that doesn’t take any longer than fixing a bowl of cereal.
Another easy, on-the-go breakfast meal is a supercharged smoothie. For the base, choose low-sugar fruits like berries, peanut or almond butter, a scoop of pea protein and unsweetened coconut or almond milk. You can also add pumpkin or sunflower seeds, or a superfood like chia to ramp up the protein content and provide some additional healthy fats.
With a little pre-planning, setting your kids up for an ideal school day with a fiber, protein and healthy fat-filled breakfast is as fast and simple as anything you’d pull out of a box.