Breakfast has been called the most important meal of the day, and with good reason.
The body and brain require a steady stream of energy and nutrients. Going without food for 10 to 14 hours or more forces your child’s body to tap its reserves.
“Kids literally fast overnight, and their ‘tanks’ are empty when they wake up,” says Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, a nutrition consultant in Columbus, Ohio, and creator of the Real Mom Nutrition web site. “They need food to get their day off to the right start.”
In addition to providing energy and nutrients, the morning meal also prevents hunger that saps a child’s energy to learn and play. Breakfast eaters may have an easier time with weight control, in childhood, and as adults.
But parents are pressed for time, and many kids clamor for sugar-filled cereal and toaster treats.
The American Dietetic Association's recent State of Family Nutrition and Physical Activity Report shows that breakfast is the meal kids miss out on most often.
“This is particularly disturbing, given the strong connection between breakfast consumption and increased school attendance, concentration, problem-solving ability, and less disruptive classroom behavior,” says Katie Brown, EdD, RD, national education director for the American Dietetic Association Foundation.
Here’s how to feed your family healthy breakfast every day, without the hassles.
17 Simple, Healthy Breakfasts
Nutrition experts say the best breakfasts offer nutrient-rich foods from at least three food groups, and include adequate protein. Protein helps to keep kids fuller longer, and protein-packed foods -- such as milk, yogurt, and eggs -- also supply vitamins and minerals.
Breakfast, or any meal for that matter, doesn’t need to be elaborate to be satisfying and nutritious. A bowl of whole-grain cereal with milk and topped with fruit is a fine choice.
If your child doesn’t go for traditional breakfast foods, don’t worry. No healthy food is off-limits for the morning meal.
Here are some suggestions for what you can reasonably prepare in a few minutes on busy mornings:
- Frozen whole-grain waffle sandwich with sunflower seed butter, peanut butter, or almond butter, California raisins, and low-fat yogurt
- Ice cream cone parfait: Layer low-fat lemon or vanilla yogurt with sliced fresh or previously frozen mango and crunchy whole-grain cereal
- Hot cocoa (made with milk) or chocolate milk, slice of whole grain toast, fruit
- Breakfast berry parfait: Layer low-fat cottage cheese with whole grain cereal and fresh or frozen berries
- Hard-cooked egg (make 6 or so on the weekend), fruit, and ½ whole wheat English muffin with tub margarine
- Banana smoothie: Blend 1 cup low-fat milk with a medium banana and teaspoon vanilla extract in blender or food processor. Serve with half a whole-wheat English muffin.
- Slice of pizza, and orange juice with calcium and vitamin D
- Turkey or roast beef roll-up with cheese on a whole-wheat wrap
- Whole-grain crackers, string cheese, and dried figs
- Half of a sandwich, milk, and fruit
- Sliced cheddar cheese melted on top of whole-wheat tortilla, and low-sodium vegetable juice
- Whole-wheat graham crackers, hard-cooked egg, small banana
- Trail mix: whole-grain cereal, shelled pistachios or sunflower seeds, dried cranberries, and low-fat milk
- Mini pizza: Layer a small whole-wheat pita round with marinara sauce and grated reduced-fat cheddar cheese. Toast or broil.
- Whole-wheat bagel (mini for younger kids) spread with sunflower seed butter, almond butter, or peanut butter and drizzled with honey; orange juice with calcium and vitamin D
- Plain low-fat yogurt topped with chopped walnuts, California raisins, and molasses or honey
- Microwave plain, 1-minute, or instant oatmeal with low-fat milk. Top with 1/4 cup dried fruit and 2 tablespoons chopped almonds.
Although any food is better than none in the morning, convenience foods should be kept to a minimum because they are often loaded with added fat, sodium, and sugar.
It is possible for kids to become accustomed to healthier options. A recent study published in Pediatrics found that children given a lower-sugar cereal "liked" or "loved" that cereal as often as children who were given a cereal with more sugar.
Kuzemchak, the mother of two, has no problem with a touch of sugar at breakfast, as long as it’s associated with nutritious foods, such as whole grains and low-fat milk. “A little sweetness is a great way to work in good nutrition,” she says.
But don’t go overboard with pancake syrup, toaster treats, or doughnuts.
Start weaning kids from sugary cereals by mixing them with lower-sugar alternatives. Serve hot cereal, such as plain oatmeal, and add your own sugar or dried fruit to cut down on the sweet stuff, too.
Maximize nutrition in kids who skimp on breakfast by serving the most nutrient-rich foods possible, such as whole-grain breads and cereals; orange juice with added calcium and vitamin D; fortified eggs; and by preparing hot cereal with milk instead of water.
Making Time for Breakfast
Time is tight when you wake up. Planning, flexibility, and simplicity are key to getting kids (and their parents) to eat the A.M. meal.
Ease the morning rush by having on hand foods that children can easily put together in the morning. For example, older kids can make their own whole-wheat toaster waffles, peel hard-cooked eggs and prepare scrambled eggs, and pour themselves a bowl of whole-grain cereal to top with low-fat milk and fruit.
- Make it routine. Stick to a morning schedule and establish a set time for breakfast.
- Limit young kids' breakfast choices. "It cuts down on negotiation time," Kuzemchak says.
Other tips for managing the morning chaos include:
- Get up 10 minutes earlier.
- Sit at the table to eat, without TVs, computers, or video games to prevent distractions.
- Get older children to help feed the younger ones, or ask a neighbor to help.
- Pack a grab-and-go breakfast the night before.
- Take care of other morning chores -- like packing lunches and laying out clothes -- before bedtime.