What Makes a Healthy Breakfast for Kids

Start the school year right with these easy ideas

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Getting the kids off to school in the morning is hectic enough. Trying to find time to make—and make kids eat—a healthy breakfast can be the biggest challenge of the day. But it's a step too important to skip.

“Feeding your children a healthy breakfast provides their brains with the nutrition they need to pay attention and learn,” says Kristi King, M.P.H., R.D., senior pediatric dietitian at the Texas Children’s Hospital. “Making sure they eat well in the morning helps set them up for success.”

Numerous studies have reinforced the benefits of a healthy breakfast for kids. Those who regularly eat breakfast tend to have healthier diets overall and are less likely to be overweight.

They also do better in school. A 2013 analysis of 36 studies, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, found that regular breakfast eaters are more likely to exhibit “on-task behavior”—such as paying attention, being alert, and being able to concentrate—in the classroom, and they have better test scores and grades.

Another study, from researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center, found that kids who ate breakfast before taking a standardized test scored higher in spelling, reading comprehension and fluency, and math.

What Makes a Healthy Breakfast?

There’s no doubt that the quality of the food your child eats in the morning matters for overall health and for learning. Choose nutrient-dense foods, which will help her meet her nutritional requirements for the day. Lean protein and fiber are particularly important, says King. “The combination will help your child feel full and help sustain blood sugar [glucose] levels so he or she can concentrate better and have more energy.”

Good protein sources include yogurt, nuts or seeds (including nut or seed butters), eggs, and low-fat or part-skim cheeses. For fiber, focus on fruit, vegetables, and whole grains (such as whole-wheat toast, oatmeal, and whole-grain cereal).

More on Healthy Eating

What you want to avoid is feeding your child a breakfast loaded with sugars. Sugary sources include cereal (some that are marketed to children contain more sugars per serving than a serving of cookies), yogurt, breakfast bars, and pastries. Look for a cereal that's made with 100 percent whole grains and contains a minimum of added sugars—the lower the better, but no more than 8 grams per serving. “Added sugars will contribute to spikes and drops in blood sugar that can affect concentration,” says King. If you need to add some sweetness to unsweetened cereal or yogurt, mix in fresh fruit instead of something sugary.

You should also go easy on the fruit juice. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children eat their fruit, not drink it. “For toddlers especially, it's easy to overdo it on calories when you’re drinking juice compared to eating fruit” says Amy Keating, R.D., a nutritionist at Consumer Reports. “Plus, whole fruit contains fiber, which the juice does not have.” According to AAP guidelines, children ages 4 to 6 shouldn’t drink more than 4 to 6 ounces of fruit juice a day. Those age 7 and older shouldn’t have more than 8 ounces. And if your child is overweight, the organization suggests not giving it to him or her at all.

Tips for Getting Breakfast Ready in a Rush

With a little planning, feeding your kids a healthy breakfast before school doesn’t need to be a morning-wrecker. There are several steps you can take to make the a.m. routine go more smoothly and send your kids off to school well-nourished.

Ask for Your Kid's Input
You’re probably more likely to choose healthy foods when you can pick what you like. It’s the same for your child. Research shows that children who are involved in preparing meals are more likely to have healthier diets overall.

For example, researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada found that the more often elementary school children helped with meal prep, the greater their preference for fruit and vegetables, and the more confident they were at making healthier food choices. “Ask your child what he or she would like to have for breakfast, and have them help you do some of the preparation—like slicing fruit for a smoothie, mixing dry ingredients for a healthy trail mix, or making a yogurt and fruit parfait—the night before,” Keating says. “Not only does this increase the chances they’ll have a healthy breakfast, but it also helps foster a lifetime of healthy eating habits.”

Make Extra
“If you have time over the weekend, cook and freeze a bunch of breakfast foods that you can just pull out, microwave, and eat all week long,” says Toby Amidor, R.D., author of "Smart Meal Prep for Beginners." Some of her freezer favorites include:

• Egg muffins: Bake eggs mixed with cheese and veggies in muffin tins. Remove and store in the refrigerator (for up to a week) or freezer.

• Pancakes: Anytime you make pancakes, cook up several extras and freeze them. (Substitute whole-grain flour for at least half the flour in your pancake recipe to increase the fiber content.) Defrost in a toaster oven or microwave, then spread with nut butter or top with yogurt and fresh fruit.

• Smoothie packs: Stash individual smoothie makings in plastic bags in your freezer. In the morning just dump one in a blender with some milk or plain yogurt to make a healthy smoothie.

Prep the Night Before
“I set the table, premeasure all my dry ingredients if I’m making something like pancakes or waffles, even set out pans and cooking utensils,” Amidor says. “If I can just walk into the kitchen and immediately start cooking, it shaves off several minutes.” Other night-before tricks include:

• Make overnight oats: Mix ½ cup of oats, ½ cup of milk (dairy, nut, or soy), and ½ cup yogurt (if you like) in individual jars, and place in the fridge overnight. In the morning, just stir and heat in the microwave.

• Prep an array of toppings (nuts, dried fruit, seeds, berries): Store them in individual containers. In the morning your kids can mix in their favorites to customize their cereal, oatmeal, or yogurt.

• Cut up fresh fruit and veggies: Have fruit and vegetables pre-chopped or shredded so that it doesn’t take any extra time to add a boost of nutrients to pancake batter, cereal, or scrambled eggs.

Mix Up Your Meals
“If your kids claim to hate breakfast foods, it’s okay to let them choose alternatives,” says Keating. “There’s no nutritional reason you need cereal, eggs, or toast in the morning.” She does suggest always including fresh or frozen fruit (with no sugar added), however. “Kids don’t eat enough fruit, and it’s easy to send them off to school with a banana or an apple.” Add a side of fruit to the following healthy options:

• Half a grilled cheese on whole-wheat bread.

Hummus and veggies with a whole-wheat pita.

• A smaller portion of last night’s dinner leftovers.

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Sally Wadyka

Sally Wadyka is a freelance writer who contributes to Consumer Reports, Real Simple, Martha Stewart Living, Yoga Journal, and the Food Network on topics such as health, nutrition, and wellness.