Food that feeds not only muscles and bones but also memory and cognition? This irresistible concept may be the latest in the media’s never-ending search for nutritional hype that will catch readers’ eyes. But when it comes to kids’ brains — those elastic engines of learning — the idea makes sense.
Although there is still plenty of debate over the details, research shows that what kids eat affects their learning in significant ways. Recently, food scientists have found not only those foods that detract from children’s brainpower, but also those which may build healthy brains and long-term cognitive health.
But let’s get real.
It’s all very well to provide kids with sautéed kale and salmon over a bed of ginger-infused quinoa. When the fork hits the plate, will they eat it? As busy parents, we need to be practical and give our kids something they won’t just pick at but dig into with gusto.
So here are four so-called brain foods your child may come to regard as treats:
- Oatmeal: Depressing porridge that conjures up Dickensian days can be transformed into something exciting and playful — especially if kids can make their cereal their own little cooking laboratory. With its high fiber and protein content, this simple grain has been associated with improved special and short-term memory tests, as well as auditory attention tests. (Check out this study from Tufts University.) The key is figuring out how your child likes it. Steel cut? With cinnamon? Drizzled with strawberries and maple syrup? Scattered with his favorite nut? Maybe he’d like it with cocoa powder. Whatever his preference, let him be a part of making and seasoning it. Some kids even love it in a thermos for school lunch.
- Frozen blueberries: Nature’s original Dippin’ Dots are well-known for containing antioxidants associated with increased memory and cognitive functioning. For some reason, kids who might only eat a few fresh blueberries at a time (and who has the cash to buy those year-round?) will chow down on frozen ones like they are candy. Allow your child to eat them with his hands, or add them to yogurt to create incredible blue food art.
- Eggs: In addition to protein, eggs are high in choline, which is essential to our memory stem cells. In a study of adolescent rodents, researcher found that choline also seems to support increased memory cell production. Sure, some kids don’t like eggs — I know I didn’t. But French pancakes (made primarily of eggs and only a tablespoon of flour and sweetened with powdered sugar and lemon juice) or French toast (made with multigrain bread — skip the butter and syrup and serve with a favorite crushed fruit) usually make for happy eaters when served for breakfast, lunch, or even dinner.
- Flaxseeds: You can’t disguise a lot of ultra-healthy foods — salmon can’t be turned into a sorbet, and kale won’t be served as a palatable bagel anytime soon. But flaxseeds have an adaptable, agreeable flavor many kids actually like. OK, maybe you’ve never tried flaxseeds, much less served them to your finicky eaters. But these great sources of omega-3s (the fatty acids associated with improved learning capacity as well as other health benefits) are affordable, delicious, and worth some creative effort. Try adding them to cereal or making “healthy candy” by mixing them with honey or maple syrup and toasting them on low heat. Once your kids get used to the nutty flavor, you can work them into all sorts of other not-so-sweet recipes: salads, trail mixes, granolas, and muffins.
While you’re thinking about what will feed your child’s brain, don’t forget to avoid what might throw it into a learning tailspin. Studies have shown that kids who eat foods high in artificial additives and sugar have deleterious thinking patterns and lower abilities to concentrate. Researchers at the U.K.’s University of Southampton found that when children eat a diet high in artificial food colorings and preservatives, hyperactive behavior becomes substantially worse. The study made such an impression that the U.K. Food Standards Agency recommended phasing out food colorings from EU foods and drinks.
Refined sugar may also negatively affect your child’s mental abilities. The Journal of Pediatrics reported that children showed hypoglycemia-like symptoms, including sweating, shaking, and distraction, at a blood sugar level that would not be considered hypoglycemic.