Three out of five teachers say they have children in their classrooms who regularly come to school hungry. In a report released last week by the No Kid Hungry campaign, four out of five of those teachers surveyed say their students come to school hungry at least once a week. And guess what? With 6.1 million Latino children living in poverty, there’s a good chance that many of the teachers above are referring to their Latino students.
Research shows that hunger directly impacts a child’s academic performance. It affects their ability to focus, hinders their cognitive skills, and squelches their motivation. For students who spend most of their morning memorizing, analyzing, and internalizing specific concepts, a good breakfast provides the proper nutrition necessary to carry out these complex brain functions.
Proteins found in milk, meats, and cheeses provide the building blocks for the pathways our brain uses to work. Without the amino acids found in proteins, our brains cannot create the neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, our brain cells use to communicate with each other. Proteins provide lasting energy over longer periods of time, therefore making it an essential part of a student’s breakfast. They also create other animo acids that help the brain to produce the chemicals that help you stay active and alert, unlike some carbohydrates, which produce chemicals that make you sleepy. However, “good” carbs like those found in whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans can provide healthy fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.
Chronic hunger can also lead to a suppressed immune system, which is why eating a healthy serving of fruits at least once a day is vital to a student’s success. Fruits like blueberries, raspberries, plums, and grapes are high in antioxidants, which boost immunity levels and help to increase a child’s resistance to diseases, including common colds and viruses. Children who miss school on a regular basis because of illness are more likely to fall behind in their work and grades.
All this is why more schools are offering free or reduced-cost meals to students from low-income families that qualify. And not just lunches are being offered. Many schools are now serving breakfasts, too. According to the No Kid Hungry report, nine in 10 teachers agree that breakfast is extremely important for academic success. Schools understand that their students’ performance during the morning hours are greatly affected by their first meal of the day.
So when choosing what to feed your child in the mornings, try to stick to this simple four-servings combination: one serving of protein, one of whole grains, one of fruit, and one serving of dairy products. Below is a list of ideas for each category. To make breakfast appealing to your child, vary the meal by mixing and matching these items throughout the week.
- 1 egg (scrambled, hard-boiled, poached, etc.)
- protein powder (for breakfast smoothies)
- whole wheat breads including bagels and muffins (or any bread with around 7 grams of protein per serving)
- whole wheat pancakes
- whole wheat tortillas and wraps
- pita pockets
- berries (blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, etc.)
- a cup of milk
- (Greek) yogurt
- cottage cheese
Keep in mind that a lot of these can be combined. For example, you can serve your son or daughter a breakfast shake with a blueberry muffin/bagel, or a breakfast burrito with a side of fruit and a glass of milk. Just be creative!
Monica Olivera Hazelton, NBC Latino contributor and the founder and publisher of MommyMaestra.com, a site for Latino families that homeschool, as well as families with children in a traditional school setting who want to take a more active role in their children’s education. She is the 2011 winner of the “Best Latina Education Blogger” award by LATISM.