Sylvia Meo, R.D.
How to Maximize Our Children’s Brain Power and Immunity Through Diet!
Updated: Oct 21, 2020
With summer sadly coming to an end and a new school year having begun, I felt it was the opportune time to remind us all of the importance of making healthy food choices a priority for our children…and ourselves!
Through healthy eating habits and proper nutrition we can all benefit from:
improved nutrient absorption
higher energy levels and overall wellbeing
improved alertness and mood stability
better short and long-term memory
quicker reaction time
increased immunity and faster healing/recovery time (when sick)
Various studies have demonstrated that whether our children are in daycare, kindergarten, elementary school, high school or university, what they eat and drink daily has a direct impact on how well they perform throughout school and their capacity to fight off the viruses and bacteria they inevitably encounter on a daily basis. Our children are in school a minimum of six hours a day and at least half of their daily calories are being consumed during those hours, it is therefore imperative that we pay closer attention to what we are putting in their lunchboxes.
Here are my "Foodful" tips for a healthy and successful back to school!
Foodful Tip 1 – Meals & Snacks
If you are not yet familiar with the Canada Food Guide this is the perfect time to review it and start using it and teaching your kids (depending on their age) how to use it as well. My general rule of thumb for preparing a healthy and well-balanced meal, including breakfast, is to always include foods from the following groups:
vegetables and fruits
When packing their snacks, think of these as a mini or small meal. Snacks are a way of introducing nutrients and energy in between meals without cutting off their appetite for the next meal. They are especially important for growing children and should be made up of the same healthy foods you use to make their lunches. A nutritious, brain and immunity boosting snack should include 2 of the four food groups. To ensure a good balance stick to one serving of foods that are a rich source of protein and one serving of foods that are a rich source of carbohydrates (vegetables or fruits or whole grains).
This is not the place for highly processed foods that have a high fat, sodium or sugar content, like chips, cookies, juices, chocolate, candies, etc. These instead are considered treats and should be offered only occasionally and ideally at home.
Foodful Tip 2 - Healthy Food Choices
Let’s dive a little deeper into each of the food groups mentioned above. I will share with you what I look for when I shop for these foods and give you examples.
Vegetables and Fruits
These foods are mainly a source of carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins and minerals. For these reasons they are essential to help protect kids against germs, and are an important and readily available source of energy. To get the most benefits from this food group, opt for mostly fresh and brightly colored fruits and vegetables. Kids love to eat in colors, but bright colored fruits and vegetables are also a tell-tale sign that they are rich in antioxidants that help protect our kids’ brains and whole bodies. Did you know that blue and purple colored foods help enhance memory? If fresh is not always an option, frozen is nutritionally equivalent, just make sure there are no unwanted ingredients (sugar, sodium, preservatives) added to them.
Kids in general love fruit purees and applesauce, my tip is try to make your own. It’s so simple and will be a much better source of nutrients than the store bought ones which for most part are essentially just providing sugar. Simply steam a mixture of whatever fruits and vegetables you have on hand, keep the skin on to include that extra good fiber and nutrients, then just blend it all up. To speed things up or when fruits are not in season, use a blend of frozen vegetables and fruits instead. Just like that you have a healthy, homemade, fiber and nutrient rich fruit and vegetable purée (or smoothie) in minutes. Trinity absolutely loves and devours them and they have been lifesavers when she’s fussy and isn’t eating as well as I’d like her to.
Finally, I also love dried fruits, especially for an extra sweet tasting treat. Because of the lack of moisture they provide more fiber, vitamins and minerals than fresh fruits, but also have more calories and sugar making the serving size extra important: no more than 2-3 pieces for bigger fruits like pears, apples, mangos, apricots and prunes, and 2 tablespoons for cranberries, blueberries, raisins, etc. Here's what you want to look for on the package: sulfite-free, organic dried fruits, ideally only naturally sweetened with juice. I love the brand Patience Fruit & Co, a Quebec company that offers all organic, additive free, sulfite-free dried fruits and many of them only lightly sweetened with apple juice.
Instead of refined, white bread, pasta or rice, processed crackers and sugary, refined cereals embrace whole grains which provide fiber, magnesium, iron, B vitamins and other important nutrients. Whole grain pasta, brown rice, quinoa, farro, whole grain breads and crackers, there are so many options nowadays; some of them even provide a good amount of protein per serving. Here is what I look for whenever I am buying any type of grain product:
it must be made with organic or non-GMO whole grains and/or flours and I look for their respective seals on the package;
I also favor glyphosate-free products, a pesticide that has been classified by the World Health Organization as a « probable carcinogen » or cancer causing substance;
sprouted grains because they provide energy more steadily and ensure that certain nutrients like vitamins B and C are more available to the body, all of which help power a full day of classes or play and boost focus and mental alertness;
“whole” grain products that offer at least 2 grams of fiber per serving: fiber increases satiety and keeps your kid’s tummies full longer and not feeling hungry has been linked to better overall learning and performance;
for sweeter products like cereals or grain bars, make sure they contain no more than 10 grams of sugar.
My personal two favorite brands Silver Hills Bakery and One Degree Organics are two sister companies that are owned by a Canadian family on a mission to provide highly nutritious, 100% plant-based, sprouted, non-GMO or organic, and Biochecked Glyphosate Residue Free whole grain breads and cereals. They have even taken the traditional cereals we all love and revamped them into what they should have been from the start: delicious yet more nutritious by removing unnecessary sugars, using sprouted grains and adding in superfoods like hemp and chia! If eating whole grains is a new transition for you and your child, these two brands are where you want to start. You can take a 50/50 approach but keep in mind that the ultimate goal is to reach 100% whole grain products before too long!
In this food group you have so many food options available to you! Here are my favorite ones and how I select and use them.
Hard boiled eggs make a perfect snack or filling for a sandwich.
Milk or plant-based beverages: to drink as is with meals or snacks, turn into a fruity beverage or smoothie perfect for a nutritious drinkable snack; I always buy unflavored and recommend organic. For more tips on plant-based milks refer to Foodful Tip 3 below.
Cheese: like with all dairy I usually opt for organic and use all types of cheese cut into pieces for a snack, sliced and added to a sandwich or grated onto a dish for a boost of protein, calcium and other nutrients. I also love cottage cheese; it is a rich source of protein for kids and can be topped with fresh or dried fruits, cereals, nuts and seeds!
Yogurt: here again I always choose organic and although I love all types of yogurts, I usually stick to unflavored so that I can add my own real fruit or a teaspoon of honey or maple syrup or some homemade jam which results in a super tasty and healthier product than the already flavored yogurts. I also choose Greek yogurt often because it is more filling than regular yogurt due to its higher protein content, plus it has less sugar!
Kefir: this is fermented milk and has the texture or drinkable yogurts which kids love. It is a great option to add variety as well as healthy probiotics into your child’s menu which play a critical role in building a robust immune system; here too I recommend organic and ideally unflavored.
Legumes: lentils, beans, chickpeas all add an amazing amount of fiber and protein to any dish; you can add them to pasta or any other grain, puree them into a quick hummus, and even buy them already roasted for a healthy savory and crunchy snack.
Seeds (nuts also depending on school policies) and their butters: add them to a salad, grain bowl or yogurt, spread some in a wrap, mix with dried fruits or buy them already pre-mixed like Patience Fruit & Co active blends in Tropical Delight and Sea Salt and Pepper flavors for a tasty, already made, healthy snack, or the Moka Moments flavor for a special treat. All the blends are made from organic whole nuts, seeds and dried cranberries.
Meat, poultry, fish and seafood: these are overall a source of protein which helps fuel and keep kids strong, but also contain zinc which helps white blood cells fight off infections. I typically avoid buying cold cuts unless I am receiving and a salumi platter is part of my menu. I prefer and recommend cooking extra portions of chicken or meat when preparing supper and then use these to fill up a sandwich, add to a pasta or grain bowl or top a salad. You are already preparing supper, so this doesn’t take any extra time to do and is much healthier. I also try to include fish and seafood into Trinity’s diet regularly. Salmon, sardines and tuna are an important source of omega 3 fats which are essential for brain health and cognitive function, as well as to help fight off infections. They make a great filling for a pita bread or tortilla wrap or can be mixed into a tomato sauce and served with pasta!
Foodful Tip 3 - Hydration
Proper hydration is extremely important. Kids need lots of fluids throughout the day in order to combat headaches, fatigue and to stay alert and concentrate. Sugary drinks, even those labeled made from 100% real fruits and vegetables, are essentially just extra sugar and calories in liquid form. Water is my beverage of choice. Sometimes I like to squeeze in the juice of half a lemon or orange for an extra boost of vitamin C especially during cold and flu season. I also add in the pulp that is usually collected in the top part of the juicer, don’t let that extra fiber, vitamins and minerals go to waste! Another beverage I also recommend is milk or plant-based beverages. I usually always buy organic milk with 2% fat for the whole family.
For a plant-based option, I have been regularly making my own for almost a year now because I drink some daily and found that most plant-based milk brands on the market sadly contain lots of added ingredients such as preservatives, gums, emulsifiers and thickeners which I don’t really want to add to my diet. For those occasions when I need to buy some already made, I have found one brand that I absolutely love and that pretty much compares to my homemade, all natural version: Elmhurst 1925. Their plant-based milks contain at most 6 ingredients and offer up to 4 times more nuts per serving than any other leading nut milk brand thanks to their HydroRelease™ method which preserves the full nutritional integrity of the nut, seed or grain. I always look for a clean ingredient list, buy them unsweetened and look an organic or non-GMO project verified beverage.
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