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Break for Breakfast: Healthy Kids' Choices

girl eating breakfast

Who says you have to make a fuss in the kitchen to feed your preschooler in the morning? We know you don't want to send your child off to school without a full stomach, so we've gathered advice from a nutritionist and some real moms. With their tips, your morning will run smoother and, more important, your child will be better able to handle a stimulating day at school.

"When children wake, they have gone about 10 hours without any food. Breakfast literally breaks the fast they are on, providing energy to their brain and body," says Elizabeth Ward, RD, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Feeding Your Baby and Toddler (Alpha, November 2005). It's an ideal time to give them the nutrients they need to grow, Ward says.

Research also shows that having breakfast can affect children's health in immediate and long-term ways. It can improve memory and school performance, as well as guard against becoming an overweight adult. No wonder breakfast is called the most important meal of the day.

Here are solutions to five common breakfast challenges:

Challenge No. 1: There's no time.

"On mornings when Josh has school, it can be a challenge to just get him out of bed and dressed in time, never mind breakfast," says Marcy Mercer, mother of 3-year-old Josh and 1-year-old Samantha, in West Orange, New Jersey. "What works for me is to have them eat in shifts. I get my daughter started first while I get my son ready for school. Then I switch and have Josh eat while I get Samantha ready."

On-the-Go Foods: Don't have time to eat breakfast at home? Ward recommends stocking up on yogurt in tubes or cups, whole-grain mini bagels, and fruits that can be taken in the car. She also advises packing some foods, such as hard-boiled eggs, the night before.

And if you're in a pinch and need to drive through for a fast-food breakfast, there are some decent options these days. McDonald's and Wendy's, for example, offer yogurt, cut-up fruit, and English muffins.

Challenge No. 2: Kids aren't hungry.

"Sometimes Maia says she doesn't want to eat, but she gets grumpy and I know that food would help," says Jane Gold, mom of 3-year-old Maia and 20-month-old Noah, in Miami. "On those days I try to play a game where we take turns. I eat a bite, she eats a bite, I sip the juice, she sips the juice. I tell her that there's a party in her tummy and Ms. Banana Bite wants to join."

Occasional Skipping Is Okay: Once in a while it won't hurt them if they really don't want to eat (or if they don't feel well), but if you see a pattern, think about making some adjustments. Until age 5, children tend to self-regulate how much they eat, but studies show that even 3-year-olds who eat high-fat, high-calorie foods before bedtime may be less hungry in the morning. Slowly adjust their eating to earlier in the day, when they need more calories to use for energy, by having them eat a slightly larger lunch and a smaller dinner, and minimizing evening treats.

If your preschooler is in a full-day program, some good lunches to send with him to school are:

  • cooked chicken or turkey in a whole wheat wrap
  • tomato soup and half a cheese sandwich
  • pita stuffed with hummus and veggies
  • leftovers from your dinner the night before

Some nutritious snacks to pack with lunch are whole-grain crackers or cereal, fruit or applesauce cups, and yogurt tubes.

Challenge No. 3: Kids won't eat or even try healthy foods.

"My son used to only eat whole-grain cereals, since that was all I kept in the house. But recently he started begging for Froot Loops because he had them at his grandparents' house one weekend," says Staci Wilson, mom of 3-year-old Ari, in Pennington, New Jersey.

Compromise and Combine: To make both Mom and preschooler happy, Ward recommends mixing a cereal high in sugar with a whole-grain cereal, and then weaning him off the sugary one. In other words, make the breakfast a little bit better by sneaking in healthy foods when you can: Roll berries in a pancake or drizzle a little syrup on whole-grain waffles. Or follow Wilson's lead and sweeten plain oatmeal with applesauce instead of buying it presweetened.

Wilson also has used some overt tactics with success: "When Ari doesn't want to eat something, I bargain with him," she says. "He loves this chocolate drink that I make using 1/3 cup chocolate soy milk and 2/3 cup plain soy milk. So I tell him he can have the drink if he'll at least taste a food that he wouldn't normally agree to try." And seeing other children his age eat new foods inspires Ari to be adventurous, she says. "When I invite his friends over for breakfast on the weekends, he's considerably more open to testing his taste buds."

Reason with Your Preschoolers: It may be effective, too: "Recently my kids started asking for chocolate for breakfast. I explained the difference between healthy foods (those that we eat a lot because they make our muscles and bones stronger and our body and hair grow) and junky foods (those that can only be eaten sometimes or else they give us a tummy ache). They now want to eat the foods that will make them tall and strong," says Gold.

Challenge No. 4: They don't like "breakfast foods."

Why limit your options to the cereal aisle or bakery? Anything is better than skipping breakfast, but if you shoot for a meal that's made from three food groups, you can ensure that your child is getting a variety of nutrients, says Ward.

Healthy Alternatives: Here are three quick possibilities to help you rethink breakfast: pizza, a pita stuffed with a scrambled egg and salsa, or even a peanut butter and banana sandwich.

Challenge No. 5: They don't see you eating so they don't want to eat.

In any kind of eating situation, breakfast or otherwise, you set the example. If you skip breakfast, they might follow your lead. "In an ideal world we would all sit down together and have a healthy breakfast, but the morning can be too hectic for that. So I cut up fruit for all of us even if I have to eat bites in between running around the kitchen," says Gold.

Live Your Own Lessons: Breakfast doesn't have to be a perfect family moment, but you should view it as an opportunity to teach healthy eating habits by example. The best part is that you can apply all the good breakfast choices you make for your preschooler to yourself, too.

3 Fast & Healthy Breakfasts

  • Your own egg muffin -- one microwaved scrambled egg on a whole wheat English muffin with a slice of lowfat cheese -- and 3/4 cup of blueberries
  • Peanut butter squeezed from a tube onto a slice of whole wheat toast, a tangerine peeled in slices, and a cup of milk
  • A cup of yogurt, a banana, and half of a whole wheat bagel

Best Choices to Start the Day

  • INSTEAD OF THIS...Plain bagel (1g fiber), TRY THIS... Whole wheat English muffin (3g fiber)
  • INSTEAD OF THIS... Doughnut (0g fiber, 3g protein, 65mg potassium), TRY THIS... Whole wheat toast with peanut butter and banana (4g fiber, 5g protein, 500mg potassium)
  • INSTEAD OF THIS... Frozen waffle (1g fiber, 0% Daily Value (DV) vitamin C), TRY THIS... Frozen multigrain waffle with 1/2 cup blueberries (3g fiber, 10% DV vitamin C)
  • INSTEAD OF THIS... Cereal-and-milk bar (0g fiber, 10% DV calcium, 11g sugar), TRY THIS... 3/4 cup Cheerios + 1/2 cup milk (2g fiber, 24% DV calcium, 7g sugar)

Grains

  • Whole wheat English muffins
  • Whole-grain frozen waffles
  • Whole-grain ready-to-eat cereals (such as Cheerios and Wheaties)
  • Regular instant oatmeal
  • Whole-grain bread

Why it should be a staple:

  • Fiber helps keep the digestive system working properly. Kids often fall short of their daily needs (5g + their age in years).
  • B vitamins are important for turning food into energy.

Fruits

  • Fruit cups (packed in juice or water)
  • Applesauce cups
  • Fresh fruit (such as bananas, strawberries, and blueberries)
  • 100% juice (no more than 4 oz. per day)

Why it should be a staple:

  • Vitamin C helps heal wounds.
  • Potassium keeps nerves working properly and fluids in balance.

Dairy

  • Yogurt cups or tubes
  • String cheese
  • Lowfat milk
  • Lowfat American cheese slices

Why it should be a staple:

  • Calcium is crucial for bone development and growth.
  • Vitamin D is needed to absorb calcium and is important to immune function.

Protein

  • Eggs
  • Peanut butter

Why it should be a staple:

  • Protein is mandatory for almost every vital body function.
  • Healthy fats are important sources of energy needed for growth.

Vegetables

  • Any that your child will eat (as long as it's not a choking hazard)

Why it should be a staple:

  • Vitamin A is important for vision and immune function.
  • Vitamin K is key for blood clotting.

Shara Aaron, RD, mother of a toddler, is a dietitian living in Bedminster, New Jersey.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, August 2005.