It’s been three months since 41-year-old Heidi Henke’s son, Gunnar, came home from his first day of school with his Broccoli Award. The 4-year-old earned it by eating three bowls of broccoli at lunch. “It’s on his dresser,” the Carrollton mom says of the certificate that depicts a large piece of broccoli and says “I Rocked the Broc.”
Gunnar is a preschooler at Prince of Peace Christian School, now in its second year as a Flik Independent School Dining community, a partnership program with independent and private schools that provides students with from-scratch cooking and nutritionally balanced meals, along with nutrition education in the form of tastings and spotlighted foods. Kids learn about the variety, health benefits and, of course, the tastiness of good-for-you foods. As headmaster Chris Hahn sees it, “The better our kids eat, the better they will perform.”
But overall brain health is about more than what kids eat. When they sleep, their activity level and how secure they feel are also key contributors to their overall well-being and brain health, experts say. So parents need to help their kids find the right balance of food, activity and sleep—and make sure kids feel secure—so those developing brains function better.
Aside from Gunnar’s awards (he’s also the recipient of the carrot award), Henke notes that the healthier eating at school has led to a more attentive and focused preschooler.
That’s likely because nutrition can help to establish the neural connections, cell signaling and the structure responsible for cognitive functions like perception, thinking, reasoning and remembering inside the brain.
A recent study by Abbott Nutrition and the University of Illinois confirms that specific nutrients in breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks play a large part in how kids’ brains are wired (or not) for success.
Key nutrients include lutein and zeaxanthin, which support memory and improve processing speed, and are rich in dark, leafy greens such as spinach and kale, though they can also be found in eggs, corn, kiwi, grapes, oranges and zucchini. Unsaturated good fats like those in nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil and DHA-fortified eggs, milk and other dairy products benefit cognitive development. And anthocyanins, the nutrients behind the pigment in purple and blue fruits like grapes and blueberries, promote blood flow to the brain, which helps it function optimally.
But getting kids to consume these good-for-them foods can be tricky. Davita Lister, Flik ISD food service director and chef in Dallas, suggests deconstructing meals and encouraging kids to build their own. Involve kids in the process of buying groceries or creating a meal plan, she says. Most kids want to eat what they’ve planned or prepared themselves.
Angela Lemond, licensed pediatric and family nutritionist and dietitian and owner of Lemond Nutrition in Plano and Rockwall agrees: “Involve your child in the process of eating, and your kid will make better choices because they’re learning age-appropriate kitchen skills and helping with the shopping.”
Prioritize balance: include a fruit or veggie (or both), lean protein and a whole grain on every plate. Protein is especially important with breakfast since it will help kick-start a child’s attention span, concentration and memory. Try eggs, sausage or bacon, even cottage cheese as part of the morning meal. And make veggies fun to get kids to try them. Spiralize zucchini to make noodles in place of pasta, or blanch green beans and encourage little ones to eat them with their hands.
Remember that taste buds grow along with bodies so keep offering; broccoli haters today may be rockin’-the-broc award winners in the future.
A developing mind also requires water. Evidence shows that children with attention and memory problems are often just slightly dehydrated. Teachers are now being encouraged to give water breaks, but it’s important to develop good hydration habits at home, which include drinking plenty of water and steering clear of soda and other sugary beverages.
Exercise is also important to a child’s brain health, and kids need more than what they get during school recess and physical education classes. Encourage at least 30 minutes of active play after school too. Let them ride bikes, enroll them in a sport or play outside together. Exercise helps kids relax and de-stress, which ultimately affects a child’s attention span and memory.
Many parents keep a scheduled bedtime for kids during the week but relax it (sometimes significantly) during the weekend or over school breaks. “Sleep allows the brain to rest and reset,” says Dr. William Brown, a psychiatrist at the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute at the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “And insufficient sleep can negatively and permanently alter how a brain functions.”
Daytime sleepiness, emotional outbursts, moodiness and excessive goofiness or clumsiness all indicate a deficiency in sleep. Keep the schedule on course and don’t deviate by more than an hour—even on special occasions. “Sleep is critical for optimal academic and physical functioning,” Brown says.
To get better sleep, experts suggest limiting kids’ screen time, especially before bed. The blue light cast from electronic devices is thought to have the same effect as caffeine.
According to sleep specialists, toddlers need 12–15 hours of sleep a day (including nighttime sleep and naps), children ages 3–5 require 11–13 hours and ages 5–12 should get 10–12 hours of shut-eye. Want a good indicator of whether or not your kids are getting sufficient zzz’s? Do they wake up in the morning on their own? If not, they need more sleep and probably need an earlier bedtime.
“For children to learn, they need to be in a place where they feel safe,” says Justin Smith, a pediatrician at Cook Children’s Hospital in Trophy Club. Worrisome kiddos tend to be inattentive and distracted. Being unsure of a parent’s reaction sends the young brain into stress mode. The brain focused on protecting itself isn’t open to learning, which is why discipline doesn’t work in moments of heightened anxiety. Be a predictable parent who manages your kids’ (brains’) expectations.
It shouldn’t be about perfection—consistency is the goal, says Dr. Laura Lamminen, a psychologist at Children’s Health in Dallas and Plano. “[That means] structure during the day, rules in the home, reasonable expectations and consequences for actions,” she explains.
It’s really a simple, intuitive recipe to create a secure home environment for kids. It includes talking, reading, singing, caring, loving and giving ample affection to kids.