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Leveraging Lunch for Kids
What kids eat at lunch is critical to how well they maintain their energy through the afternoon. If your child eats a hot lunch in the cafeteria, stop by from time to time to get a good look at the meals, and see what may be missing.
If your child brown-bags it, make sure she helps you select and prepare what goes in. "The more kids buy into what they're having, the more likely they are to eat it once they're at school," says Johnson. And make it substantial: Lunch should provide a third of your child's calories, vitamins, and minerals. Pack these powerhouse foods:
Sandwiches on Whole Wheat
Not only are whole wheat breads rich in fiber, but the enriched flour used by most commercial bakers is rich in folate, a B vitamin that is used to manufacture memory cells in the brain.
Folate has long been on our radar as critical for moms in early pregnancy and for the neural development of their infants, says Zeisel, but it turns out its brain-building effects may continue through the entire pregnancy as the memory center is formed. What's more, whole grains are a good source of other B vitamins that have also been shown to improve alertness.
"Because so many families are following low-carb diets, they may be skimping on breads, cereals, and orange juice--all of which are terrific sources of folate for children," Zeisel says.
Turn up the appeal
Win over a white-bread eater with peanut butter and extra jelly, or low-fat cheese, on whole wheat bread. Or pack "mini-sandwiches" made on whole wheat crackers or whole wheat tortillas, instead.
Fat-free milk is well known as a great source of protein, vitamin D, and phosphorus. But calcium also affects how our bodies regulate energy, says Naomi Neufeld, MD, a pediatric endocrinologist and author of KidShape: A Practical Prescription for Raising Healthy, Fit Children.
"Calcium plays an important role in the body's production of insulin," she says. "Unless there is true lactose intolerance, it should be a nonnegotiable part of your child's diet."
Bonus: A diet rich in low-fat dairy seems to protect children from obesity.
Turn up the appeal
To make milk tempting, just add chocolate or strawberry syrup: Experts say there is very little caffeine in chocolate milk, and it contains about the same amount of sugar found in fruit juices. "Just make sure you're factoring that sugar into your child's overall eating plan," says Neufeld, who is also director of KidShape, an antiobesity program in California.
While most fruits are not brain foods, per se, they do offer children a distinct learning advantage. That's because constipation is a common problem, reports the American Academy of Pediatrics. As a result, kids often drag through their school day feeling sluggish, lethargic, and in more severe cases, anxious and distracted.
Fruit (along with exercise and plenty of water) is the best way to keep kids regular, and hence ready to learn. But cut up fruit first, and send it to school in plastic containers. "It seems less daunting to them," says Lorraine Stern, MD, professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles and editor of The American Academy of Pediatrics Guide to Your Child's Nutrition. "Whole fruit is just too easy to throw away."
Turn up the appeal
Make fruit fun by serving small pieces with a toothpick, and go for kids' fiber-rich favorites: oranges, plums, apples, pears, and melons.
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