What kids eat can impact their capacity to learn. We sat down with Kate Wengier — family dietitian, mum of four and founder of food educator Foost — who explained how.
As they grow taller, kids’ brains are growing and changing every day. A large portion of brain development occurs during childhood, continues well into the teenage years, and doesn’t stop until 25 years of age. And as the brain evolves, so does a child’s intelligence.
The brain controls everything your body does — walking, talking, digesting, keeping your heart beating, and laying down memories to help you learn. And the brain — like the rest of the body — needs the right nutrition to reach its full potential, as Kate Wengier explains.
Q How does food affect a child’s ability to learn?
Kate: The foods children eat and enjoy affect both their mental and physical health, impacting the child’s ability to learn and thrive at school.
Interestingly, it’s not just what we eat that impacts learning. Studies show how we eat matters. Regular family mealtimes, where one or more adults eat with children, have been shown to improve children’s academic performance as well as their resilience, social connection, language skills and mental health.
Q Are there any foods to avoid?
Kate: Actually, no. Being overly restrictive with foods usually has the opposite effect. Children can become obsessed with these foods, eating more of them when they get the chance. It’s a common misconception that foods high in sugar adversely affect a child’s behaviour. All foods give us energy to fuel our brains. Variety is the key.
Q There’s pressure on parents to make kids eat more healthily. Do you have tips to get children to eat healthy foods?
Kate: Well-meaning pressure is counterproductive for long-term eating, as worried parents lovingly use pressure techniques to ‘get’ children to eat. Bribing and pleading might work in the short term, but we want our children to learn to like a variety of brain foods, not just now but forever.
The best thing parents can do is to eat with their children — to be role modes for how to eat and enjoy a variety of foods. Be patient, try to stay calm, offer the foods, and let children try them in their own time. Pleasant and repeated exposures to a range of food in a calm environment is the most effective.
Q Are there any foods that children should eat more of to help improve their academic performance?
Kate: Children need to eat enough food in order to be able to concentrate at school.
A nutritionally ‘perfect’ lunch box that a child doesn’t feel comfortable eating from is not really useful. A lunch box filled with a variety of foods, including enough familiar foods, is very important for children, allowing them to choose.
Variety is the key — because all food groups play a role in academic performance. Grains fuel the brain, and colourful fruits and vegies, fish and/or nuts and seeds also help out. If a child doesn’t eat one single food, it’s nothing to stress about.
Adding seeds, oats, fruit and veg to baked snacks in a lunch box is one way of increasing variety, or children might prefer them on the side. Adding an assortment of foods to lunchboxes, and to meals at home, gives more opportunities for variety. Some foods can be used as the basis for varying meals during the week.
Four food groups for nourishing growing minds and bodies
Focus on the following four food groups when providing nourishment for growing minds and bodies.
1 Omega-3 fats
As the brain is made up mostly of fat, brain cells need the right ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fats to function optimally. Both are ‘essential fats’, which means the body can’t make them — so we need to eat foods that contain them. While most Australian children get enough omega-6, surveys show they’re not consuming enough omega-3 fats.
Raw nuts and seeds are an excellent source of both omega-3 and omega-6, plus other key vitamins and minerals. Walnuts and linseeds are particularly rich in omega-3.
Fish too is a great way to get omega 3, but many parents find it hard to get their kids to eat it. Kate suggests making fish patties, or crumbing fish pieces. In fact, crumbing may be just what it takes! Try bread, panko, quinoa flakes, sesame or polenta for a lovely, crunchy texture.
2 Colourful fruit and veg
The different colours of fruit and veg show they’re rich in antioxidants, which help protect the brain cells against damage from ‘free radicals’. Eating a variety of colours ensures your kids are getting a good range of nutrients and antioxidants to help their brains thrive.
Kate’s tips to help boost your kids’ veg intake: For breakfast, spread avocado on toast, or make a vegie-filled omelette, breakfast burrito or baked beans. Or add some grated carrot or zucchini to your porridge or cereal. Pop vegie sticks into the lunch box, and slip vegies into sandwiches. For dinner, make veg the stars — and meat the side. Grated carrot, zucchini and lentils (if canned, just drain the liquid) go into just about anything!
Help your kids snack on veg and dips. Many dips such as hoummos and tzatziki contain veg, so they will receive a double dose. Try carrot cake bliss balls, roasted chickpeas or chickpea cookies as snacks. You can use fresh, frozen and canned veg.
3 Wholegrain breads and cereals
Breads and cereals that are less refined and higher fibre have a lower Glycaemic Index (GI), meaning longer-lasting energy, improved concentration, stable mood and no 3 o‘clock slump!
Multigrain bread and crackers, traditional oats, pasta and brown basmati rice.
4 Protein-rich foods
Foods rich in protein help increase ‘happy‘ brain chemicals such as tryptophan and serotonin, which help to regulate your mood, appetite and sleep patterns. They’ll provide adequate iron intake too. Iron is needed to transport oxygen around the body. If the brain and muscles are depleted of oxygen your child will feel very tired, making it hard to feel enthused about anything.
Include lean meat, fish, seafood, poultry, nuts and/or legumes, which are good sources of protein and iron. Eggs and dairy — milk, cheese and yoghurt — are protein rich too.
The bottom line
Eating a variety of different foods — and at regular intervals — will ensure that your child is receiving the best nutrition so their brain can function at its best.
For more ways to help your kids eat well you might be interested in:
Five ways to keep your kids healthy for life!
What to feed your kids for better learning power
10 ways to help your fussy eater
Better eating on the autism spectrum
Get gardening, kids then take it to the table