Eating a good breakfast boosts chances for school success

University Park, Pa. -- Your mother was right -- breakfast is the most important meal of the day, according to an expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

Eating breakfast improves concentration, memory and problem-solving ability, said Katherine French, registered dietitian and extension educator in Mercer County. "Eating breakfast improves the brain's ability to function and gives you the energy to get you going and keep you going throughout the day."

This is especially important for school-age children because those who eat breakfast are more alert, less irritable, participate more fully in learning activities and have better behavior, said French. "These kids have longer attention spans, get better test scores and are tardy and absent less often," she said. "Breakfast-eaters even make fewer visits to the school nurse."

Since breakfast-skippers consume more calories and fat later in the day than breakfast-eaters, researchers suggest that eating a nutritious breakfast helps to control body weight.

Despite the advantages of eating breakfast, some children (and adults) choose not to. They believe they don't have time, aren't hungry or just don't like breakfast foods. "But when it comes to kids not eating breakfast, the main reason they may not eat is that there may not be a parent or caregiver around at breakfast time," French said. "They need encouragement to eat and to help them to put together a quick, easy breakfast."

To encourage breakfast-time consumption, French suggested having quickly accessible breakfast items, such as ready-to-eat cereals, instant oatmeal, fresh fruits or juices, mini-bagels, muffins, toast, yogurt, string cheese and milk. "Set the breakfast table the night before," French said. "For children, just seeing the bowl, spoon and box of cereal on the table is a good cue that they will be eating breakfast."

Parents can think outside the cereal box, too. "Breakfast choices do not have to be ‘traditional' breakfast foods," said French. "Items such as sandwiches -- grilled cheese, turkey, or peanut butter and jelly -- or leftovers from last night's supper, such as a slice of pizza, taco, a stuffed baked potato, rice or noodles, still can make for a balanced healthy breakfast when accompanied by a glass of juice or low-fat milk."

Eating breakfast jump-starts a body's metabolism from an overnight fast, replenishing blood glucose stores.

"When kids don't eat breakfast each day, they are unable to reach their full learning potential," said French. "It's hard to 'make up' for missed nutrients by eating later in the day. Skipping breakfast makes it difficult to get the adequate fiber, vitamins and minerals that are important for growing bodies."

"While any breakfast food is better than nothing, healthier choices will stay with a child longer until they eat their next snack or meal," explained French. Higher-fiber foods such as whole-grain breads and cereals digest more slowly, creating a more stable blood-sugar level and greater staying power. "Look for cereals with less than 5 grams of sugar per serving and shoot for 5 grams of fiber."

Enjoy high-sugar cereals and drinks sparingly, as they cause a quick rise in blood sugar and energy followed by hunger symptoms within an hour. The same for traditional breakfast foods such as bacon, sausage, biscuits and gravy, and fried hash browns -- they are typically high in fat, cholesterol and salt, so look for lower-fat versions, or consume them in moderation.

To combat the tendency of some homes to eschew breakfast, most school districts offer breakfast programs. These programs may or may not be based on income level, and they offer varying menu selections. Check with your local school district for more information.

"Just don't make breakfast complicated," said French. "It doesn't have to be time-consuming or expensive. Plan ahead. Use your freezer: make a batch of muffins at the beginning of the week and pull out a few each night to have for breakfast the next day. You also can make your own French toast, waffles or pancakes and freeze them. When it's time for breakfast, just take them out of the freezer and pop them in the toaster."

"No one ever said that dinner had to be the ‘family' meal," said French. "Turning off the TV in the morning and getting up just 10 minutes earlier can help make breakfast together a reality. Even just sitting down a few days a week together around the breakfast table can be a good time to check schedules, discuss upcoming events or just share with each other. A good breakfast can get everyone started on the right foot -- nutritionally and emotionally."

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Last Updated November 18, 2010