Everybody knows that breakfast is billed the most important meal of the day, but on a day-to-day basis in an average family’s fast paced schedule, it can be difficult to ensure your children leave the house fuelled with the right sorts of food. We asked Britain’s most trusted nutritionist Jane Clarke questions on all things breakfast – and find out exactly what our children should and should not be eating to ensure a productive school day.
What are my options when it comes to providing my children with quick and healthy breakfasts?
You’re right in saying that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, as it helps to set your child up not only energy-wise, but also mood and concentration-wise. We tend to be pretty traditional when it comes to breakfasts, tending towards either a bread or cereal-style option in which case, I would choose either a sourdough bread (slow fermentation style) which is often easier to digest, especially with anxious tummies or a spelt toast, which although it contains gluten, the gluten matrix can be a little easier on the gut. Cereal-wise, I’m not a fan of the majority of the ready made cereals as even the ones which proclaim to have no added sugar can often have so much sugar already in the ingredients, such as dried fruits, that can still have quite a sugar hit effect in a young body. Although it’s more time consuming I much prefer to make my own blend, (once a week I make a batch), which although contains many of the same types of ingredients from raw oats, spelt flakes, seeds to dried fruits and nuts, I am able to control what goes into the blend. I also like to have jars of the individual ingredients on the table so that you can vary what goes into their bowl. Homemade smoothies and juices can also be great if you also add some other sustaining ingredients such as ground nuts, nut milks, yoghurt, crushed seeds or try sneaking in some vegetables, as these can provide a great start to their day.
Which cereals or foods should be avoided at all costs?
Whilst not wishing to harp on about sugar being the big sin, I tend to find that the sugary jams, processed sweet foods such as cereals, sweet breads/pastries etc. tend to make children far less able to manage their energy levels and moods well, so I would try to go for a pure fruit spread instead of jam.
Your top 3 brain foods to help concentration?
Oily fish is amazing for boosting a child’s omega 3 levels, so we are talking salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines etc., which although might feel heavy, they make a great breakfast if mashed and spread on warm toast. Having some protein in the morning can also set children up concentration wise, so this could be eggs, nut butter, yoghurt, hummus, cheese, a treat of some lean charcuterie or smoked salmon. Hydration makes a huge difference, so giving them a little bottle of water on the way to school in the car and ask their teachers to ensure they have regular water breaks, as annoying as they can be for teachers, they will ultimately help your child perform well.
How can food affect a child’s mental health and performance at school?
You only need to see how a hungry or sweet-induced child behaves at home to know that at school their mental health and performance can be hugely influenced by what they eat. When I was involved in the Jamie Oliver school meals campaign we saw a huge change in how children felt when they ate well and I see with my family and patients that if a child eats well they have a much greater chance of being happy and maximising their potential.
My child rarely sits down for breakfast – do you have a recipe for a cereal bar that I can make for them to take to eat on the run?
Yes, see below –
Power Pack Cereal Bars
- Preparation time: about 20 minutes
- Cooking time: about 15 minutes
- Makes 24
- 175g unsalted butter
- 150g honey
- 75g pear and apricot spread or prune spread
- 125g raw demerara sugar
- 250g organic jumbo oats
- 75g pecan nut halves
- 75g sultanas
- 75g dried dates
- 75g dried apricots
- 30g pumpkin seeds
- 25g sunflower seeds
- 25g pistachios
- 25g Good Seed
- 25g linseeds
- 50g ground almonds
- Preheat the oven to 190ºC/Gas Mark 5 and line a 23cm square baking tin with greased baking parchment.
- In a large saucepan melt the butter, then add the honey, spread and sugar and stir until they are all dissolved.
- Bring the mixture to the boil for 1-2 minutes.
- This will make the sugar caramelise to form a really sticky sauce.
- Add all the other ingredients, mix really well and pour into your cake tin.
- Pat everything down so it is nice and firm, then place in the oven for 20 minutes until the edges go golden.
- Leave to cool, tip it out and slice into bars.
How much fruit should my child eat for breakfast?
Children vary as do fruits, so there isn’t particularly a rule of thumb, but I think a handful of fresh fruit is a good guide to start with. Fruits such as mango, banana, pineapple, dates and figs tend to be sweeter than pears and apples etc., so I would try not to have too much of the first group, as you may find they get a sugar rush. And by choosing as many local and seasonal fruits of different colours and types as possible you will also be giving them a good hit of antioxidants, which are great for supporting their immune system.
When it comes to the weekend, is there something you’d recommend that’s a little more fun, albeit possibly less healthy that I can make them for breakfast – every once in a while?
Oh, I would go for pancakes and waffles, served with a compote of fruits, or go Asian and make a lovely noodle style soup and see if more of a savoury hit suits their palate more. We tend to be very conventional with breakfasts, but in India and Asia the savoury options can be delicious even rice and vegetables – try!
Which is the most healthy way to eat eggs? Poaching, scrambled?
They all have their plus points. If scrambled I would lightly fry them in a little butter or coconut butter, but then again poached eggs can be fun to make together if you use the little molds. I am a huge fan of eggs in the morning, as is Maya, my beautiful daughter.
Should I give my child fruit juice for breakfast, and why?
I’m not a big fan of fruit juice as they’re very high in sugar, so I tend to suggest that you dilute ready-made juices by 50% with water and lean more towards the apple-based juices rather than the tropical styles. I prefer to make as many fresh juices myself as possible, but for those moments when I just don’t have time, I dilute the shop bought.
What should I do if my child just won’t eat breakfast?
Firstly, assuming that they’re well in every other way, try to ensure you sit and eat with them, as they’re far more likely to tuck in, if you’re beside them. Try not to create a battleground at the beginning of the day, which I know is easier said than done, but if it’s a one-off, then perhaps give them breakfast to eat in the car or when they get to school before they start lessons. Just be wary of getting into bad habits of always eating on the go, as a meal table teaches children so much more than just food; it’s about socialising, talking, sharing etc., the more you can do together around a table, the better.