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A Smart Start Nutritional Perfection Is Not Needed

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The wake-up call for groggy students and rushed parents is arriving as inexorably as a 7 a.m. bus pickup.

School's already back in session in one metro district. Most others start Friday or Monday. That means, for many of us, it's time again to scramble to get everyone up and dressed. Breakfast? Sometimes there's time, sometimes it gets lost in the morning rush.

Yet if there's one thing that helps children get ready to learn each day, it's eating in the morning, research shows. Breakfast doesn't have to be an elaborate sit-down meal to sharpen a child's concentration, quell disruptive behavior and provide enough energy to carry through until lunch. It can be as simple as a peanut butter and banana sandwich with a glass of milk, eaten in the car on the way to school. For students attending schools that offer breakfast, getting the right start to the day is even easier.

Children and adults get the most sustained energy boost from a balanced meal, but nutritionists say even sugary cereal or pastry is better than starting the day on an empty stomach. Another bonus: Eating breakfast may help prevent obesity by cutting down on snacking throughout the day. And children who eat breakfast are more likely to consume recommended amounts of fiber, fruit, vitamins and calcium and other minerals.

Finding time to eat is just part of the battle. Convincing a sleepy teen or picky kindergartner to have a few bites is the toughest struggle for many parents. Nearly one in 7 school-age children don't eat breakfast, a ratio that holds true across all income levels, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Beth Pierce of Snellville knows that her 8-year-old son often isn't hungry first thing in the morning, and her 4-year-old son would rather have candy.

"I have all these great ideas for good things for them to eat," she says, sighing. "But neither of them are big breakfast eaters."

Still, she keeps trying, offering a mix of the nutritious foods she wants them to eat and the kid-pleasers they crave. Fruit-and-yogurt smoothies or toast with peanut butter may convince her older son to eat something, she hopes. As for the younger one, who's starting pre-kindergarten, she'll try a variety of foods to see what he goes for --- but she draws the line at candy.

Jodie Shield, a registered dietitian and co-author of "The American Dietetic Association Guide to Healthy Eating for Kids" (Wiley, $14.95), lets her children prepare as much of their breakfast as they can. It helps harried parents, and it gives kids a stake in what they're eating.

That doesn't mean parents hand over all responsibility; they still pay for the groceries, after all. But it also doesn't mean parents should turn breakfast into a battleground over the most nutritionally correct breakfasts. If children won't eat whole-grain bread, try introducing it just once a week and gradually serving it more often. If they won't eat breakfast at all, start with a glass of milk or a banana, and work up.

"Nobody's perfect," Shield says. "We just want to strive to be the best we can be. When it comes to breakfast, the best thing you can do as a parent is eat it yourself."

Ideally, breakfast should include protein, carbohydrate and a dairy food, says Rachel Brandeis, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and a dietitian at Northside Hospital. Carbohydrates provide energy by raising blood glucose levels. Whole-grain products add fiber and provide a more sustained energy release so a child doesn't get just a quick sugar rush from breakfast. Protein helps sustain that energy and carry a child until lunch. Dairy products provide protein and calcium, which helps build bones; calcium-fortified juices are a good substitute.

"Whole-grain cereals are great if kids would eat them, but if they love sugary cereals, add fruit to it --- like a banana to their Frosted Flakes," Brandeis says.

Shield recommends at least one selection from three or more food groups, but no more than one item from the USDA Food Pyramid's fats, oils and sweets category.

JoAnn MacKenzie of Acworth says that her daughter, 8-year-old Heather, loves sugary cereals. She limits her to a half-cup serving of Cookie Crisp and makes sure Heather takes a vitamin every morning. Sliced strawberries and milk round out breakfast.

With Heather's bus due at 7 a.m. and MacKenzie shifting from stay-at-home mom to a full-time job this fall, she's making sure she's prepared for days when everybody is running late by stocking up on cereal bars and orange juice. Getting up early helps so MacKenzie can set the table, make coffee and pour cereal before waking Heather.

MacKenzie once worked as a teaocher's aide for elementary students and learned firsthand how eating breakfast affected children.

"Some kids were just drowsy and didn't know how to get things going in the morning," MacKenzie says. "When they sat down and had a decent meal, they paid attention better."

Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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