The Importance of Starting Your Day with Breakfast
By Dee Madore, Registered Dietitian
Rise and shine! Our bodies use the simple sugar called glucose for fuel. Glucose is stored in the liver and released as needed. When glucose stores are depleted, usually by mid-morning after a night of sleeping, this source of quick energy is not available. The result is the sensation of hunger, decreased concentration and fatigue, all of which can make learning more difficult. This is why it is important to be sure your children "break the fast" and refuel their bodies to start the school day – and every day – right.
Besides being fuel for your body, breakfast also provides key nutrients. Children who eat breakfast are more likely to meet their overall nutritional needs. In fact, studies show that children who eat breakfast eat more fruit, drink more milk, and consume less saturated fat than those who don't eat breakfast. When children skip breakfast, they generally don't make up for key nutrients missed in that first meal, like iron, calcium and protein, later in the day.
Kick starting a child's day with a healthy meal may even help combat obesity. Research supports that those who eat breakfast are less likely to be overweight than those who do not. The theory is that breakfast plays an important role in regulating appetite, hormone levels and the amount of calories we burn throughout the day.
Need something else to chew on? Breakfast eaters have better test scores, improved memory and focus, and are less likely to be absent or tardy. Schools with breakfast programs report less behavioral problems and visits to the school nurse.
Make Breakfast A Habit
About 15% of school-age children are not eating breakfast at all, 30% of elementary school children are going to school at least one day a week on an empty stomach, and 20% are going without twice a week. The older the child, the more likely breakfast will be skipped. Girls are more likely than boys to skip breakfast.
And kids are not the only ones going without breakfast in the morning. It is important that parents be good role models. Parents who eat breakfast with their children can cut the chances of those children skipping breakfast by two-thirds.
The reasons families give for skipping breakfast include expense, time constraints and lack of hunger in the morning. Indeed families today face challenges that make sitting down to eat a daily breakfast difficult. But realizing how much of a beneficial impact breakfast can have for a child makes it well worth the effort. Here are some tips to make breakfast become a habit:
1. Take advantage of school breakfast programs.
It is required that school breakfasts provide at least ? of the daily recommended levels for key nutrients and contain no more than 30% of calories from fat. Some children qualify for reduced price or free breakfast.
2. Develop morning time-savers.
Make task checklists for each child so the morning routine runs more smoothly. Instead of rushing around in the morning, pick out outfits, take baths and showers, prepare lunches or set out lunch money, and pull out items needed for breakfast the night before. A few minutes of preparation will allow more time for breakfast.
3. Cook ahead, freeze ahead or crock-pot breakfast.
If you like to cook but don't have time in the morning, there are lots of foods you can cook in advance. Cook-ahead ideas include banana or other fruit and whole grain bread and muffins, baked French toast, and egg casseroles. You can make and freeze things like egg and cheese English muffin sandwiches, breakfast burritos, pancakes or waffles. Fruit and granola, hot cereals, and potato and egg casseroles are all ideal for cooking in the crock-pot overnight.
What's For Breakfast?
Go with the grain... When choosing breads and cereals, choose those made primarily with whole grains. Whole grains include oatmeal, barley, brown rice cereals, buckwheat, whole cornmeal, millet, whole rye, whole wheat or others. Some food packages include the whole grain symbol, which tells you how many grams of whole grain each serving contains. Sixteen grams per serving is considered an excellent source and 8 grams is a good source. If there is no symbol, read the label, and pick foods listing whole grains near the top of the ingredient list. On labels, "wheat flour" and "multi-grain" do not mean whole grain. Pastries such as toaster tarts and commercial baked goods like muffins and donuts typically have a high sugar and fat content, providing little more than a source of calories. They are typically made from refined grains that are stripped of their bran and germ which are grain components rich in vitamins (including vitamin E, folic acid and the B vitamins), minerals and dietary fiber.
Bulk it up with fiber... Children need between 20-30 grams of fiber per day. Aim for at least 5 grams of fiber at breakfast. Fiber not only helps to promote regularity and prevent constipation, but it also helps prevent cancer and heart disease later in life. Here are some ways to increase fiber in your child's breakfast:
- Look for breads made with extra fiber that contain up to 5 grams per slice
- Serve fruit nectars instead of juice
- Look for breakfast cereals with at least 3 grams fiber per serving
- Offer oat bran and whole grain hot cereals (try Mothers? or Arrowhead Mills? brands)
- Sprinkle wheat bran or oat bran on yogurt or choose yogurts containing added fiber
- Add fruit to cereal
- Make a smoothie with fruit and ground flax seed
- Substitute whole wheat or oat flour for up to half the flour in pancake, muffin or waffle recipes
- Add canned beans to eggs or omelets
- Serve organic fruits or fruits with skins thoroughly washed
- Add dried fruit mixed with dry cereal in a baggie
Protein power... Breakfasts that include a good source of protein from MyPlate's "Protein" or "Dairy" groups (Visit www.choosemyplate.gov/ for information on the Food Pyramid) will be more satisfying and nutritionally balanced than an all-carbohydrate meal. Breakfasts containing mainly carbohydrates, such as waffles with syrup or a toaster pastry and a glass of juice, will provide quick, short-lived energy, whereas toast with peanut butter and a glass of milk will stave off hunger for longer. Breakfast meats such as bacon and sausage are high in saturated fat and should be consumed sparingly. Lean ham or turkey are better meat options and eggs, peanut butter, nuts, hummus and beans are other great protein options. Eggs are notoriously high in cholesterol, but as long as they are consumed within the guidelines of the Food Pyramid, they are a very nutritious way to start the day.
Make it colorful... Adding a fruit or vegetable to each breakfast is a great way to get a head start on the Food Pyramid's recommended 3 to 5 cup intake per day. One hundred percent juice is an easy way to help reach that goal, but it should be limited to 6 ounces per day for children under 6 years old, and 12 ounces per day for children over 7. Look for fruit juices with added vegetable juice (such as Harvest Surprise? by Juicy Juice? and V8? V.Fusion?) for more nutritional bang for your buck.
Drive through... Eating breakfast out is typically more expensive and a less healthful option. But when eating out, choose whole grain English muffins with peanut butter, bagels with low fat cream cheese, or egg sandwiches on whole grain bread or bagels. Avoid breakfast pastries, croissants and biscuits, which are laden with artery clogging fat.
Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day! Teaching children about healthy breakfast choices and the importance of refueling their bodies every day can start them on the right track for a healthier lifestyle.