By Cora Rivard, Naturopathic Doctor/N.D. in Derry, NH
Have you ever wondered about the connections between what your child eats (or doesn’t eat) and how they feel?
In my practice, I often see how meal and snack choices during the day affect anxiety, focus, behavior and mood concerns of young children and teens. In this article, I’d like to outline a few common problems and to offer some helpful suggestions.
One of the most prevalent problems I have seen for children in recent years is skipping meals, especially breakfast. The reasons may include:
- They are in a hurry to get ready for school.
- They are tired, not hungry, or feel bloated when they eat and so they feel better not eating in the mornings.
- The rising popularity of eating trends for adults, such as intermittent fasting. (This is not a good choice for children.)
- Missed lunches because of busy class schedules, or they don’t like the menu options.
A child may not eat because they are concerned about their weight or appearance, or because they feel nervous or have an upset stomach in the mornings. Consulting with their pediatrician and connecting your child to a counselor is very important if any of these issues are happening.
When children don’t eat before a long school day, they can experience increased feelings of anxiety, lack of focus and irritability as symptoms of hunger. They may have a hard time staying awake in class. And they often will crave something sweet or salty and crunchy.
If they begin their eating for the day with something sweet, let’s imagine a pop tart, donut or other common sweet bakery item, this starts a full-day roller coaster ride of blood sugar peaks and valleys and elevated stress hormones. First they experience a little “rush” of good feelings. This “rush” is the “feel good” effect of endorphins flooding the brain during a spike in blood sugar. This may make them feel temporarily fulfilled and even wild (hello, children’s birthday parties!) While some may feel pretty good and might even focus better for a short while, others respond to that rush by getting hyperactive and/or acting out in class. But almost all of them will feel a “crash” within the next hour or two as the blood sugar levels fall. They then will feel more anxiety, or irritability, and have more difficulty with focus. They may then act out, withdraw, or simply seek out their next “fix” of sugar.
The goal is to get off that roller coaster! Helping children to develop more regular eating habits so that their bodies are not stressed by hunger, or the sugar highs and resulting withdrawals, helps them to feel more confident, happy and focused. Improved habits support their growth, and they are better able to keep up with sports and their extracurricular activities. And they will feel more calm and consistent with mood and their behaviors at home, too.
Balancing a healthy supply of complex carbohydrates from whole grains, whole fruits and vegetables, and good sources of protein and healthy fats will keep your child consistently fueled throughout the day, without a crash in mood and ability focus. Protein, fiber and healthy fat in meals all help to slow down the influx of sugars from a meal into their bloodstream and gives them a powerhouse of slow-burn energy to last longer into the day.
Here are a few of my favorite quick breakfast ideas for kids:
- Overnight oats: whole-rolled oats allowed to soak overnight in milk or unsweetened yogurt. Heat or eat cold in the morning topped with fresh fruit/berries, cinnamon and some honey.
- Whole grain toast spread with nut butter or sunflower butter
- Eggs and whole grain toast, with or without a piece of fruit
- Leftovers from dinner! Dinner for breakfast on its own or scrambled in with eggs for adventurous kids.
Need some snack ideas, or a quick lunch? Here are some other great ideas:
- cubes of cheese with grapes and whole grain crackers
- slices of apple with dipping container of sunflower seed butter
- strips of baked or rotisserie chicken with pita, and carrot sticks
- “ants on a log”: celery sticks that your child can spread sunflower seed butter on, and then sprinkle with raisins*. (Due to the high glycemic value of dried fruit, particularly raisins, it is best not to offer raisins as a sole snack, but in combination with other healthy snacks to balance them out, they are very nutritious.)
- make your own yogurt: buy quarts of plain yogurt, add fresh fruit, pureed or whole, or apple sauce of your choice. You may sweeten with a touch of honey if needed. Pack in an insulated container for school snacks. For drinkable yogurt, simply throw these ingredients in a blender with small amounts of milk until you get the consistency that you desire. This is a much cheaper way to create yogurt and yogurt smoothies, and much healthier than the sugary products in the store.
- carrot sticks, or Bell pepper strips and hummus. Kids love variety and like to dip fruit and veggie slices into something tasty.
My young patients often love to help their parents in prepping their own snacks. This can be a fun and creative activity together!
There are many great reusable packs to keep snacks cool- I am partial to the foldable, freezer-safe insulated lunch bags.
As you already know, there is a lot of marketing aimed squarely at your child for unhealthy and heavily processed snack foods. Avoid buying the sweets and ultra-processed foods. For better ingredients, consider preparing snacks from scratch and packing foods from home, for your children and for yourself. With some planning, and the occasional preparation of “batch’ snacks and portioning ahead of time, it becomes a habit. And let your children get involved in shopping and in preparation- you’ll be teaching them the nuts and bolts of putting together a healthy snack! You are your children’s best teacher- and maintaining their best health is one of the best gifts you can give!
****For more information about my practice, or to schedule a complementary “meet and greet” consult online, please visit my website at: http://www.seasonsnatural.com
I am a specialist in naturopathic family healthcare, which involves a focus on natural and supportive strategies to resolve common (and sometimes not-so-common) health and medical problems affecting children and adults.