Eating for School Success
Eat well, learn well
Consider that eating breakfast might be critical to your child achieving their educational potential. And then consider that the secret to getting your child to eat breakfast, preferably a healthy one, could lie in your own eating habits.
Research published in the Archives of Paediatric and Adolescent Medicine shows that the provision of school breakfast results in improved academic performance and greater school attendance in late primary-school-aged children.
The increase in blood sugar levels provided by breakfast before an educational session seems to aid the physiology of learning. In contrast, skipping breakfast has the opposite effect, interfering with children's mood and their ability to think.
Research shows that the provision of school breakfast results in improved academic performance and greater school attendance in late primary-school-aged children.
Children who eat breakfast are more likely to:
• meet their daily nutritional needs
• keep their weight under control
• have lower blood cholesterol levels
• attend school more frequently
• do better at school
• make fewer trips to the school nurses office complaining of tummy aches.
Acknowledgment: American Dietetic Association
Nutritionists are concerned by the small but significant number of Australian primary-school-aged children who skip breakfast on a regular basis-this increases to 15 per cent by 12 to18 years of age. Apart from affecting school performance, skipping meals is associated with children being overweight and having a lower nutrient intake but not lower calorie intake (according to Maureen Humphrey and Judith Myers, paediatric dietitians at the Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne).
Nutritionists and many parents are also concerned about other dietary patterns emerging among Australian children. The 1995 National Nutrition Survey tells us, for example, that on the day of surveying a group of five- to eight-year-old children, the following habits emerged:
• Four out of ten children did NOT eat fruit.
• Three out of ten children did NOT eat vegetables.
• Only 25 per cent of children regularly drank water.
But perhaps as parents, you already know that eating a healthy breakfast and more fruits and vegetables would be good for your children. In fact, you may have heard these healthy eating messages many times, and wish you could just make it happen. Putting it into practice though, at times seems simply 'too hard'.
'Many children eat in ways that parents aren't comfortable with,' says Maureen Humphrey. 'This often leaves parents feeling disempowered and guilty because their children aren't eating breakfast, nor are they eating the suggested two fruits and five vegetables every day.'
Establishing healthy habits
Apart from knowing what children 'should' be eating, what are the keys to establishing healthy eating patterns in young children?
Maureen and her co-worker dietitian, Judith Myers, assist many parents and families to establish healthy eating routines. They believe that the missing link for parents often isn't so much the need for more food and nutrition information; it is a reminder of the power of parental role modelling and family routines that can make all the difference. As does involving children in the selection and preparation of food.
Maureen and Judith will often start by asking parents what their own eating habits are like: whether they eat breakfast, and what their own fruit and vegetable intake is. This is because children like to copy the important people in their lives so the food choices of parents (and friends) are powerful in shaping children's food choices. Also, children are highly effective hypocrite detectors and will rightly ask, 'Why should I have to eat breakfast if you don't?'
. . . the missing link for parents often isn't so much the need for more food and nutrition information; it is a reminder of the power of parental role modelling and family routines that can make all the difference.
Parents can start by setting achievable eating goals for themselves and their children.
They can begin to model the habits they would like their children to adopt. Any change in the right direction is encouraged-it doesn't have to be quick, difficult or all at once. One piece of fruit a day or a few times a week is better than none.
Mealtime routines provide children with a regular, predictable rhythm for eating. This also enhances nutrition. Children who eat regularly with their families tend to have a higher intake of calcium, iron, fibre and vitamins-all of which are important for children's growing bodies.
Take a look at your morning: does it allow time for breakfast, or does the rush and chaos take over? 'I will often step parents through exactly how they spend their time in the morning,' says Maureen, 'and look at what needs to change in order to establish a routine that allows for breakfast'. Not allowing TV in the morning, making lunches the night before and ensuring an early bedtime all help to create time for breakfast. Again, it doesn't have to happen all at once. Start by practising a component of your preferred morning routine (for example getting up ten minutes earlier than usual) a few times a week.
Hands-on involvement with healthy, tasty food is a great way to increase a child's interest in eating it. This involvement can range from helping with cooking and serving meals as well as decisions about buying food. Shopping with children can be demanding but offering them controlled choices can help children feel like they are the ones making the decisions.
You could ask, for example, 'Would you prefer bananas or apples?' rather than 'Would you prefer bananas or biscuits?' Ask children to help you wash the fruit when you get home, and then encourage them to prepare and eat it as part of their breakfast the next morning.
Habits, including eating habits, are tenacious patterns resistant to change so acknowledge and praise any efforts you and your children make to eat well, no matter how small. Remember the benefits of a nourishing breakfast to increase not only your children's ability to think clearly and concentrate, but also yours.
Food Ideas for Breakfast
Quick and easy
• Wholegrain breakfast cereal; milk with sliced banana
• Boiled egg on wholegrain toast
• Smoothie-milk, banana, yoghurt and honey
• Toasted muffin with peanut butter
• Toast and a glass of milk
Food to savour
• Pancakes with strawberries and yoghurt
• Porridge with a little honey (add sultanas to taste)
• Grilled cheese and tomato on wholegrain toast and sliced into fingers
• Savoury omelette
Classroom Parent Magazine Issue 3 / 2003
© Scholastic Australia 2003