The 1st and 2nd graders at Gribbin Elementary School in Glen Cove, New York, ooh and ahh as "Tobe Fit" juggles a colorful assortment of rings, bottles, and fruit. Tobe, played by actor Mike Whitbeck, and his apprentice Johnny Junkfood, played by Eric Girardi, are the stars of Foodplay, a traveling theater show that teaches the whys and hows of healthy eating.
Using juggling, yo-yos, and humor, Foodplay has been spreading its message to parents, children, and educators for over 20 years. With today's alarming rise in childhood obesity, high cholesterol, and Type 2 diabetes, the lessons Foodplay teaches seem more important than ever. But even if your child is not at risk for disease, there is a good reason to be sure he eats right: good nutrition can help him do well in school.
Turn Brains On With Breakfast
Your child needs to eat before school to have the energy to stay alert and thinking throughout the morning. Barbara Storper, a registered dietician and founder of Foodplay, sees many breakfast skippers when she performs for schoolchildren. She says that often these kids are tired and "unable to keep their heads up" by 11 a.m.
For a breakfast that delivers energy along with essential vitamins and minerals, avoid high-sugar cereals and high-fat foods like toaster pastries. One of the best choices is oatmeal, because it delivers a good mix of carbohydrates, fiber, and protein. It may also boost your child's memory! A recent study comparing oatmeal eaters, cereal eaters, and breakfast skippers found that kids who started the day with oatmeal did better on memory-related tasks.
The Amazing Mid-Day Meal
Since your child gets about one-third of his daily calories at lunch, it's important to find ways to make that meal nutritious.
What's so important about lunch? Again, your child needs energy, this time to get him through the afternoon. And even if he’s not physically active, his brain needs to be fed. Glucose is the fuel that keeps the brain working. Researchers have found that learning tasks quickly deplete the brain's glucose store; a good lunch is required to replenish it.
If you send your child with a lunch from home, turn lunch prep into a routine you do together the night before — just like homework, reading together, or bath time. Getting him involved in choosing and packing his lunch will help him learn to make healthy food choices. Plus, he’s more likely to eat a lunch that he helped make.
The best brain-boosting glucose sources to pack in a lunchbox include:
- Whole fruit — high fiber choices such as apples, pears, peaches, plums, and raspberries are best
- Canned fruit such as peaches or pineapples (look for ones packed in water or lightly sweetened)
- Raw vegetables including spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, onion, or mushrooms (include a small container of honey mustard or yogurt sauce for dipping)
- Grilled or steamed vegetables
- Legumes like beans, lentils, and non-fat refried beans
- Whole grain products — whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, etc.
What About Treats?
Storper and other experts don't recommend forbidding goodies. Most children can enjoy sugar, fat, and caffeine in moderation. But experts disagree on what constitutes moderation.
For example, some suggest limiting children to 100 milligrams of caffeine per day (equal to about three cans of cola). However, Storper and others say less caffeine is definitely better. To monitor your child's caffeine intake, check food and beverage labels. Products don't usually list caffeine as an ingredient, but unless they're marked "caffeine free," assume that soda (including root beer, citrus-flavored soda, and other non colas), iced tea, chocolate milk, semi-sweet and milk chocolate, and coffee-flavored treats contain caffeine.
Exercise for the Mind
When it comes to boosting your child's school performance, smart nutrition has a partner: physical fitness. The California Department of Education has found that children who are physically fit are more likely to have higher test scores.
The reasons why lead us back to the brain. The part of the brain that processes movement is the same part that processes learning, specifically memory, language, attention, spatial perception, and nonverbal cues.
Equally important to teaching your child about eating right and exercising is showing him. Adopting a healthy lifestyle yourself will influence his habits forever