As we jump back into another school year, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed – “How am I going to handle the new schedule?” “How am I going to keep my child healthy?” “How can I make sure my kids are getting proper nutrition to help them learn?” Start by focusing on these five areas:
- BEGIN THE DAY WITH A BRAINY BREAKFAST
Above all other organs, the brain is most affected – for better or worse – by what you eat. You put junk food into a child’s brain, you get junk behavior and junk learning. Scientific studies show that children who begin the day with a brainy breakfast:
- Made higher grades
- Were more attentive and participated better in class
- Were less likely to be diagnosed with A.D.D. or learning disabilities
- Handled complex learning tasks better
- Missed fewer school days because of illness
The main ingredients of a brainy breakfast are:
- Protein, which perks up the brain
- Fiber-filled carbs, which provide a steady supply of fuel
- Omega-3 fats, which build smart brain cells
- Minerals, such as calcium and iron, which help brain biochemistry work better
Here are some tips for brainy back-to-school breakfasts from the Sears’ family kitchen:
- Enjoy a “school-ade” smoothie. If your family’s rush-hour is like our family’s in the morning, sleepy kids and hurried parents are not the recipe for a long sit-down breakfast. On most school mornings I would make our kids a healthy smoothie I called “school-ade.” Our kids loved this quick, brainy breakfast! (See Dr. Bill’s school-ade recipe).
- Whole-grain waffles or pancakes topped with blueberries and peanut butter
- Oatmeal with blueberries and yogurt. Also try adding a scoop of nut butter.
- Whole-wheat banana nut bread and yogurt
- ½ cup low-fat cottage cheese in a scooped-out cantaloupe half
- Whole-wheat tortilla wrapped around scrambled eggs and diced tomatoes
- Veggie omelet, whole-wheat toast, and fruit
- Peanut butter and banana slices on a whole-wheat English muffin with low-fat milk
- Almond-strawberry yogurt cup. Layer the yogurt and strawberries (or another fruit, such as blueberries or chopped apple, peaches, or pineapple) in a small bowl. Drizzle honey over the top if plain yogurt is used. Sprinkle with almonds and/or flax-seed meal.
- Zucchini pancakes. This is a long-standing Sears’ favorite that even our toddlers enjoyed. Add a cup of shredded zucchini to whole-wheat pancakes.
Besides a brainy breakfast, send your child to school with a healthy snack. Those busy little bodies and brains run out of fuel mid-morning and mid-afternoon, the times when learning and behavioral problems are most likely to appear. Our favorite snack: Go nuts! Nuts are the perfect snack because they provide the perfect balance of healthy fats, healthy carbs, and protein. Make your own trail mix: let your children pick out their favorite nuts and add dried fruit. For school snacks, be safe and avoid peanuts because of possible peanut allergy. A handful of nuts for a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack is just what the school-doctor orders.
- FEED YOUR CHILD IMMUNE-BOOSTING FOODS
Fruits, vegetables, and seafood are your top three immune-boosters. For simplicity, remember the three S’s: salmon, salads, and smoothies. In my medical practice I have noticed that families who feed their children these three top immune-boosting foods are sick less often, especially during those early back-to-school months and the winter flu season. If your children are not fond of seafood, such as wild salmon, give them a daily omega-3 supplement. Studies have shown that school children’s performance improves when they eat adequate omega-3s. Good science and good sense go together, since omega-3 fats are the top structural component of growing brain cells. Once your children join the back-to-school crowd, they are naturally exposed to more germs, so their immune systems need a boost.
(See Dr. Bill’s 30-minute video on preloading your immune system.)
- GO OUTSIDE AND PLAY!
One of the top teachings in our Dr. Sears Wellness Institute certified health-coaching programs is: movement mobilizes your immune system. Or, as my favorite “immunologist” taught: “Go outside and play!” Science agrees. Movement in nature – dubbed “exercise squared” by top neuroscientists – actually increases the number and fighting ability of the natural killer cells – the trillions of white blood cells that patrol your child’s body in search-and-destroy missions against germs. When the NK cells detect a germ in your child’s body, they glom onto the germ and literally fire a biochemical dart into the germ and blow it up. If your NK cells could talk (they do, but we don’t always listen) they would shout: “Feed me well, move me a lot, and don’t stress me out and we’ll fight better for you.”
Once they took recess out of school, Ritalin dosages went up. Any correlation? I believe so. Science agrees. My friend, Dr. John Ratey, Professor of Neuropsychiatry at Harvard Medical School, participated in an experiment called The Naperville Study in which some students would come to school an hour before school started and run around the schoolyard. Those early movers showed remarkable improvement in their grades, their ability to focus in class, and less “attention problems.”
Good science and good sense go together. Increased movement of the body increases blood flow to the brain, which is why I call movement “grow food” for the child’s brain. Besides encouraging recess breaks at school, try a brief walk with your child just before school.
- SLEEP-WELL STRATEGIES
Early on in our parenting career, we learned that the better children sleep, the better they learn, and the better they behave. That’s because sleep, in a nutshell, is like opening what I call your Sleep-Well Pharmacy inside. During sleep a child stores the memories of the information they learned at school that day and the homework they did that night. When they sleep well, they store and recall this information better. Quality sleep strengthens the immune system, which helps protect them against naturally germy classrooms. During sleep they dial down stress hormones and dial up happy hormones. Our favorite sleep-well tips for students are:
- Move more during the day to sleep better at night.
- Have a set bedtime routine and bedtime.
- Unplug all artificial lights, such as computers, iPads, and TV at least an hour before bedtime. (Screening off to sleep is seldom smart.)
- Gradually dim the lights in your “sleep sanctuary” before going off to sleep.
Revving up your mind and delaying darkness are the two top sleep disrupters. Sleep scientists at Akita University School of Medicine in Japan wired up students as they tried to go to sleep after playing exciting computer games. Their heart rates were higher, probably due to higher stress levels; it took them longer to go to sleep; and melatonin production was delayed, leading to lessening of their overall quality of sleep. If your young student must indulge in screen time before bedtime, watch a funny, “feel good” movie with a happy ending. Ditch scary and upsetting stuff!
A mother in our medical practice told us, “Our family turns off bright lights and turns on our soft “twinkle lights” throughout the house when the sun goes down. This is our family’s message that it’s time to settle down and enjoy quiet activity before bedtime.”
Drink up when you wake up. The young student’s brain doesn’t like to start the day dehydrated from all the water they breathed out during the night. Soon after awakening, have your child down a couple glasses of water.
(See here for info about foods that will help you sleep.)
- LESSEN BACK-TO-SCHOOL STRESS
A sudden change in daily activities can bother both brains – the head brain and the gut brain. After a summer of play, sleeping in, and no homework, suddenly children, like some adults returning from a long vacation, suffer stress overload. The top stress-reliever we have taught our children is what we call “preloading” the calming center of your brain by how you drift off to sleep and how you wake up each school day.
First, have them tape a list on their bathroom mirror entitled “Five things I like about me,” such as “I like my pretty hair,” “I like my blue eyes,” “I like that I’m a good soccer player,” “I like that I’m a good friend,” and “I like that I’m honest.”
Next, as they drift off to sleep, sometimes with “stress-therapist” Dr. Mom or Dr. Dad as a facilitator, have them think about five things that they really are, which we call the “I am” technique – a technique taught to me by several patients in my pediatric practice: “I am smart,” “I am pretty,” and so on. We call these stress-reduction exercises preloading the brain, which sets the child up for a good night’s sleep, and a good night’s sleep sets them up for a good day of learning.
Upon awakening, they then go back to their bathroom mirror and say five things they are thankful for – the “attitude of gratitude”: “I am thankful for my friends at school…” Remember, both parenting and schooling are basically giving your children the tools to succeed in life. One of the top tools to teach them early on is stress-reduction, especially with the “attitude of gratitude.” No matter how much “life sucks,” and sometimes it does, everyone has a few things to be thankful for.
More resources to read:
- The Healthy Brain Book: An All-Ages Guide to A Calmer, Happier, Sharper You
- See our tips for alleviating COVID anxiety.