10 Foods to Boost Kids’ Brains
Written by Dani
School is starting! And food is not just for energy; it’s the goodness that makes our brains tick and our bodies grow strong. The brain is where the nutrients (or junk) go first. The most rapid brain growth occurs in the early years of life – cognitive function, gross and fine motor function, coordination, memory and concentration. Through the teen years the planning, memory and decision making centre is going into full gear. While all nutrients are important, some are real brain boosters. And breakfast is truly the most important meal of the day to get their energy levels up. So let’s take a look at some brain food to help our little tykes be in peak shape in the classroom.
Dark leafy veggies
Yes, mummy was right. Spinach, lettuce and (more recently) kale must be eaten. Flavonoids, carotenoids (e.g. lutein), and vitamins B4 (folate), E and K1 protect the brain and improve cognitive function. They also lower the risk of dementia later in life. Carotenoids are also good for your retina. For better absorption of some of the nutrients it’s best to lightly cook dark greens like spinach and kale. The oxalic acid in them blocks absorption of the iron and calcium, but it breaks down under heat. So you can steam for 3-5 minutes or blanch for 1 minute. A homemade pesto is a great way to combine basil, spinach and nuts blended in olive oil to accompany pasta, chicken and other dishes. Made fresh from the garden is absolutely delicious!
Colourful vegetables are bursting with antioxidants for healthy brain cells – pumpkin, carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, sweet peppers (especially red). Swap sweet potato for your shepherd’s pie and cook as many vegetables as you can think of into the filling (trust me!). Use some local sweet potato fries on the side for a quick dinner – oven baked and delicious. Pumpkin and carrots in muffins, cookies and breads are scrumptious! Cooking tomatoes makes the lycopene easier to absorb, a light roast or stir fry amps up the carotenoids. Steam the carrots, broccoli and cauliflower. So many things to remember!
Loaded with protein, selenium and vitamin B12 for brain development, eggs are nimble and can adapt to any meal of the day. Choline, which helps with memory and prevents nerve cell damage, is packed in the yolk. Scrambled, fried, boiled, poached, omeletted, quiched, devilled, there must be some form that those kiddos will like.
High in fibre and protein, beans are wonderfully nutritious. Kidney and pinto beans have the most omega-3s, especially ALA. Black beans and soybeans are a good source of non-heme iron, which is best absorbed with vitamin C. So make sure you have tomatoes and sweet peppers in that salsa with a side of orange juice. Other good sources of iron are broccoli, spinach, and lean beef (heme iron), which also contains zinc. Add beans to your stews, sauces and salads.
Fish and other seafood are an excellent source of many nutrients that are particularly important for brain function, including omega-3 fatty acids (especially DHA and EPA), vitamin D, iodine, and zinc. Zinc helps memory, nerve cell production and development, omega-3s are necessary for brain growth, function and memory, and iodine is to produce thyroid hormones, which play an important role in brain development. Fish are a lean, healthy source of protein to top it off. Some good old sardines or canned light (avoid albacore) tuna with some herbs and veggies, and we’re good to go! If you want to get exotic, salmon (specifically Alaskan) is among the best recommended.
But we need to be careful about what types of fish we eat and where they come from. Because of pollution in various parts of the world, mercury toxicity is a real concern. Even small amounts can interfere with brain development, so exposure is particularly risky for children under 6 and women in their child bearing years. They say it can build up particularly in the liver and other organs of the fish to make sure to gut it completely.
Oranges and berries
Oranges are rich in flavonoids, which help to increase nerve activity and blood flow to the brain. Its famous vitamin C is essential for proper brain development, neurotransmitter production, and more, and helps tasks involving focus, working memory, attention, recall, decision speed, and recognition. A fresh-squeezed or unsweetened cup is a great accompaniment to breakfast or lunch.
Berries are also great sources of antioxidants, including vitamin C. I will particularly mention Bajan cherries (if you can find them) because they are very powerful. The other well-known ones are strawberries (you can find some farmers locally if you have the right hook up), blueberries, blackberries (not the phone) and the like. Imported and generally pricey, but the fresher and deeper the colour, the richer the nutrients. Berries are very versatile and can be added to smoothies, yoghurt, oats, salads and more. The seeds are also good for omega-3s.
High in fibre, zinc, potassium and vitamins B and E, oats are a great way to start (or even end) the day. They provide the energy to kickstart the day, stay focused and alert. A hearty bowl packed with fresh fruit (like, bananas, apples or raisins), cinnamon or nutmeg and a sprinkle of seeds can be rocked hot or cold. The fresh fruit makes it naturally sweet. You can add a few spoons to smoothies, or in a batch of healthy cookies or pancakes. Try to avoid the instant kind, because like white rice and white bread, all the nutrients, especially fibre, are stripped away. Steel cut or rolled oats are better, but they would need to be cooked or soaked longer. I love overnight oats, and there are a ton of recipes online. Mix it up, put it in the fridge and it’s ready for you in the morning. Carrot, apples, greek yoghurt, raisins, chia seeds… I put all kinds of goodness in there.
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds contain high concentrations of many nutrients linked to improved cognitive function, including vitamin E, zinc, folate, iron, thiamine (vitamin B1), essential fats and protein. Eating nuts can help improve the quality of children’s diet and boost their intake of essential nutrients, such as healthy fats, protein, and fibre. They help protect the nervous membranes, unlock glucose for the brain and nervous system, and can also boost your mood.
Some kids may not be old enough to eat nuts yet, so nut butters are an excellent option. My kids love some on top of their apples and bananas; cinnamon is a good topper too that gives the metabolism a jolt. Seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, flax/linseed, chia, etc.) are easy to mix into yoghurt, cereal and smoothies.
Chock full of iodine, protein, zinc, vitamin B12, and selenium, yoghurt is a powerhouse of nutrients. And calcium is important to help the absorption of vitamin D. Greek yoghurt has way more protein than regular yoghurt (though on the pricier side, I know). Full fat is a good thing, to keep neurotransmitters firing. Unsweetened yoghurt would also be a preferred option, which can then be loaded with goodies like fresh fruit, oats and pumpkin seeds (don’t toss them, make your own!). Or a yummy parfait with layers of yoghurt, chopped nuts and fruit.
Chocolate! The best for last. Cocoa and cocoa products, such as cacao nibs, are some of the most concentrated food sources of flavonoid antioxidants. These compounds have anti-inflammatory and brain-protective properties. Cocoa flavonoids increase blood flow to the brain and improve visual processing. Toss some cacao nibs into their oats, or have the occasional piece of dark chocolate (70% or more cocoa), which their palettes may need to get accustomed to. Not too much now!
The best part of this list is that all the fresh fruit, vegetables, poultry and seafood can be sourced locally. Varied and colourful are two words that should describe your little one’s plate everyday. The rainbow of greens, yellows, oranges, reds and purples is indicative of the range of nutrients getting into their tummies and brains.
Mix it up with fruit that are in season, and experiment with fun ways to incorporate (and hide) the veggies and fruit. Smoothies, veggie-packed omelettes, homemade fish patties and chicken stir fry are personal favourites. The more veggies the better, even some you may not think would work can surprise you. Mix some nuts and fruit into a salad. A grilled burger (beans, fish, meat, whichever) with spinach and options of an egg and cheese on whole grain or homemade bread is a dinnertime fav at our house. Make fruit the most prominent and easily accessible snack in the house. No restrictions needed.