If your child is grumpy, tired or isn’t doing as well as they might at school, the problem might be they’re not eating a proper breakfast. According to paediatric dietitian Lucy Upton, children who skip the first meal of the day miss out on nutritional, energy-boosting and academic benefits – and it’s likely to be a widespread issue.
A recent survey of 2,000 parents by Flora found that nearly two-thirds of children regularly skip breakfast. When they do eat in the morning, the majority guzzle unhealthy sugary cereals, or toast with a high-sugar topping. Worryingly, up to one in 20 start their day with crisps.
Upton says: “Some truths about the importance of breakfast do exist. It offers a key window to top up energy levels and break the extended fast overnight that can often leave children feeling lethargic, grumpy or lacklustre.
“Breakfast also offers parents an opportunity to get in key nutrients essential for a child’s health, growth and development. Some studies suggest children who regularly consume breakfast achieve a better intake of certain vitamins and minerals and are more likely to maintain a healthy weight overall.
“Breakfast is increasingly seen as beneficial to academic performance. Research has linked skipping breakfast with poorer GCSE performance, which is consistent with previous findings showing reduced scores on tests for children missing breakfast.
“Eating a balanced breakfast offers an opportunity to boost alertness, attention span, memory and mood – important not only for a child’s education, but also social skills, development and emotion management.”
Many parents find it an uphill battle to get their children to eat a healthy, balanced diet and will worry about how a lack of nutritious food before leaving the house will affect their child’s performance and concentration at school.
But with a little effort, it is possible to get children into the habit of eating a good breakfast every day. Here, Upton gives six tips on how to get children to eat breakfast and what they should be eating to make it healthy and delicious.
1. Preparation is key
Prepare quick, balanced and easy breakfast options. This could range from a variety of cereals available in the cupboard to pre-prepared breakfast muffins, overnight oats, pancakes, smoothies or toast toppings such as boiled eggs – all ready to go. The easier it is to offer during the busy morning routine, the more likely it is to happen.
2. Set aside time for breakfast – ideally together
Make breakfast a clear and anticipated part of your child’s routine (even if this means 10 minutes less in bed), and where possible eat with them. Leading by example and parental role modelling of eating behaviours have been shown to increase a child’s interest in food, enjoyment of foods and reduce fussiness.
3. Skip the crisps
With the Flora survey showing one in 20 children eat crisps for breakfast, it’s time to consider a switch. While parents might be tempted to think something is better than nothing, crisps are high in fat and salt and far from a nutritious breakfast offering. Consider easier speedy choices, such a bag of fruit and unsalted nuts, a homemade breakfast wrap or sandwich, or a slice of baked oats.
4. Sugar swaps
Children’s sugar intake is very much on the public health agenda and many parents worry their child is eating too much of it, so it can be helpful to see where high-sugar foods might be creeping into your family’s breakfast. Try some straightforward swaps. If you child prefers a sugar-coated cereal, try initially mixing it 50/50 with a lower sugar alternative, eventually switching over completely. Swap sugar-packed chocolate or biscuit toast spreads for cream cheese, hummus or nut butters, adding slices of fresh fruit for extra nutrients and natural sweetness.
5. Use breakfast as a nutritional opportunity
Parents often worry their child isn’t getting enough healthy food or having a balanced diet. Use breakfast as an opportunity to add extra nutrients. For example, choose fortified cereals, grains or breads which have added vitamins and minerals such as iron, folate and B-vitamins. Boost fibre intake by switching to 50/50 wholemeal or seeded breads and cereals. Add fruit to cereal, porridge, muffins or pancakes, or vegetables to eggs or a part of a breakfast sandwich.
6. Think outside the breakfast food box
Food is just food. It’s perfectly acceptable for a child to have a balanced meal outside of the normal breakfast remit. Whether it’s a balanced meal of porridge with fruit, or a tuna vegetable pasta bake, it can be offered at any time of day. Try to avoid getting stuck in a rut of always offering the same foods. It’s an easy trap for breakfast, with a treadmill of cereal or toast. Variety is key for a balanced diet.