In my household of two kids, weekday breakfast is a rushed and harried experience, even in the time of virtual learning.
The caffeine has yet to kick in for the adults, the dog and kids are hungry and demanding attention, and the clock ticks away counting down until the day’s events begin. In that small window of time, the goal is to feed everyone, attempt to clean up the mess that eating creates, and grab what is needed for the day. All of this by 7:05 a.m.
I know I’m not alone in describing the morning routine in a home with kids. As parents, we know the importance of nutrition for growing bodies, but we also feel the pressure of serving what the kids will eat without a fight, and the crunch of time. The ideal balanced meal can easily fall to the side, to be replaced with convenience items that you can grab and go — even at home. The container of yogurt, a protein or breakfast bar, the toaster pastry, or the drive-thru breakfast sandwich.
Over the years trends in U.S. breakfasts have evolved to time-saving options. In our grandparents' generation, it was milk and eggs delivered to your door. Our parents happily stocked milk and cereal so that we could get breakfast on our own. Then along came the pop tart and toaster strudel. The Chicago Tribune reported the annual pop-tart sales in the U.S. to be 2 billion. Clearly, a popular option for it’s tasted and convenience.
While these grab and go options are fast, and often loved by kids, how are they contributing to your child’s school day?
A regular school day requires cognitive skills; focus, memory, and inhibition (hold still, don’t blurt out an answer) to name a few. Then add the additional distractions, and the difference in structure and oversight of the at-home learning environment, and the need for these cognitive functions increase.
Our brain requires energy and fuel to implement these cognitive skills — but the right amount and type of fuel is critical. While sugar provides a quick and powerful dose of energy it isn’t an effective energy source to support sustained cognition, which is needed for a day of school or work. In spite of sugar being an ingredient that can work against us, it is often one of the top three ingredients in the typical American breakfast, including many of those convenience items.
Studies have shown that a spike in sugar can actually impair our cognition and self-control, making it harder to sit still and pay attention. That spike in sugar can spike our energy initially, which may make it harder to sit still and listen. Then there is the crash, resulting in a craving for more sugar, which can repeat the cycle. This means that both the highs and lows from sugar can make it harder to concentrate.
So that quick easy breakfast in the morning of a sugary cereal can actually backfire in getting ready for a productive school day. This can result in a day of frustration for both the kids and parents. We fed the kids sugar, then yell at them to hold still and pay attention. If a day of focus and effort is truly the goal, making different breakfast choices can help set you all up for greater success.
If we want our kids to remain focused throughout their school day we can help support this goal by insisting they consume foods to help set them up for success.
What are those foods? Carbohydrates are a good fuel source, but we burn through this energy source quickly, resulting in a crash. Hangry anyone? Focus and good decision making at this point is hard for any of us, at any age.
Proteins and healthy fats take longer for our body to break down and utilize as a fuel source, which minimizes the peaks and valleys seen with sugar and carbs, sustaining our ability to focus for a longer period of time.
You may be asking yourself, take away pure sugar and carbs for breakfast and what are we left with that is still quick and easy?
We still serve many of the breakfast standards in our house, we just modify to ensure we are sneaking in the ever-important proteins and fats. Below are our family favorites for a busy school morning:
- Instant Oatmeal with added protein. Stick with the plain oatmeal, as the flavored oatmeals jump up in sugars quickly. IF your child will eat nuts, this is a great source of protein AND fats to add to the oatmeal. Mine don’t, so we add a scoop of chocolate or vanilla protein powder that adds flavor and the missing nutrients. Adding a sliced banana adds more flavor, texture and nutrients as well and still tastes good with the protein powder.
- Protein shake. Parents will often tell me it feels too slow to make, and they don’t think their picky eaters will go for it. Once you find a recipe everyone likes you can make this in roughly one minute and it will quickly become a household staple. Using water, milk, coconut milk, or your milk of choice for a base, then adding frozen fruit and a scoop of protein powder is delicious, filling and healthy. The best part is you can add a handful of spinach and even the most discerning of eaters will have a hard time noticing the greens. Our favorite frozen fruits to add are bananas and frozen cherries. Do a family taste testing event and try different variations to find the combo of fruit and protein that works for your crew! Before you invest in a $45 container of protein powder you can buy single servings so that you can try a variety (our favorite protein powder is Ancient Nutrition Bone Broth Protein in Chocolate or Vanilla). To take the protein shake up a level you can add a tablespoon of coconut or MTC oil for additional good fats.
- Toast with nut butter. For the mornings the kids are eating in the car or at their desk. Peanut butter, almond butter, cashew butter. There are more nut butter choices now than ever. To add a sweet flavor with less sugar, honey is a great way to add a little sweet to your toast. Eating on the go? Grab an apple to go along with the toast.
- Bagel with sliced avocado. Sprinkle with some sea salt or Trader Joe’s Everything But the Bagel Sesame Seasoning and this is simple and delicious. Choose your bagel carefully as the amount of protein can vary widely.
- Egg sandwich. While this requires a pan and a toaster it can still be made in about 5 minutes. Add cheese and ham or sausage to the sandwich for extra flavor and protein. This is another item you can make ahead and re-heat when needed.
- Breakfast sausage. I love to buy this 2lbs at a time from the meat counter, then make up a large batch in patties to have on hand for the week. You can eat them cold, or quickly re-heat on the stove or microwave. This can be a great quick protein side for those toaster waffles! There are also several great ready-made brands of pre-cooked sausages. Read the labels to avoid nitrates and preservatives (these can have a negative impact on the brain).
- French toast. It’s bread, but dredged in egg for protein! This is another breakfast meal we’ll make on a Sunday to have ready for the week. Admittedly I prefer it fresh, it’s still a hit the second time around. We serve with peanut butter and a dab of pure maple syrup.
- Egg bites. This is another great make-ahead option that the whole family loves. Grease a muffin tin (big or mini muffin size) and in a separate bowl whisk up eggs, the milk type of your choice, and any other ingredients you have on hand. Shredded hashbrowns, cheese, diced veggies, whatever works in your household, or needs to be used up in the fridge. Pour into the muffin tins and bake at 350 degrees. We’ll eat these warm or cold!
*My household is gluten-free, so we do everything above in a gluten-free version.
Like all things in life, moderation is key. Sugar is hard to avoid, but working to keep it at a minimum, and thinking about the timing of the sugar is a helpful strategy for parenting wins.
I get it, your kids love pop tarts (and maybe you do too). Rather than serving the pop tart or favorite sugary breakfast cereal before school, save and use as a snack at the end of the school day, then send them outside to burn off that energy. Or better yet, skip the pop-tart altogether and set everyone up for a more successful and less frustrating day!