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We’re a solid 2 weeks into back-to-school. By now you may be on a first name basis with your child’s school bus driver. The nerves you and your child felt meeting new teachers, parents, and classmates have calmed. The scramble in the morning may be slowly starting to settle down as a routine starts to settle in.
And then, there’s the homework.
A mom was telling me how on the second day of school, their child in grade 4 came home with math homework that was due two days later. The homework took the mom and her child TWO HOURS to do the night before.
There’s no wonder the hours in the week are so precious to families.
Now, I may not have an equation to better solve math homework dilemmas. But I’m writing this post to answer a question I received. Hopefully it will support you as you read on. (see what I did there??)
Can nutrition impact a child’s brain function? Their cognitive development? Their intelligence?
Nutrition is not the only factor that influences cognitive development in young kids and teens. But when I started into the research on the topic, I was pleasantly surprised by the important roles of food and appropriate nutrition education. Here today, I get you started on just how different nutrients can boost the young brain 🙂
Why is this important?
When we think of brain function in kids, we may think of school performance and test results. But the importance of cognitive development goes beyond grades — it’s the functions that allow kids to communicate well, learn to problem-solve and behave appropriately in different situations.
How does nutrition play a part?
An individual’s brain development is really determined by the genes they inherit. But what’s interesting is how these genes work — they are turned on and regulated by things in the environment. Nutrition is an important factor that regulates these genes.
What foods help develop the young brain?
Here are three recipes with details on their brain power potential:
This recipe boasts a trio of nutrients that are like the “3 amigos” in our body. Vitamin B12, folate and choline are gaining more interest when it comes to cognitive development. These 3 amigos may alter how our genes work, act as a building blocks to messengers in the brain (known as neurotransmitters), as well as protect our brain cells from breaking down. B12 is exclusively found in animal products. Choline is also found in animal, and some plant products. And leafy greens tend to be a good source of folate.
2 tsp canola oil
1 skinless chicken breast OR 1 cup chickpeas
Pinch of salt and/or fresh ground pepper
1 Tbsp milk
1 cup baby spinach OR broccoli, chopped
1/3 cup marble cheese, shredded
What to do:
- Heat oil over medium high heat in 8-inch nonstick skillet.
- Cook chicken with S&P for about 8 minutes (or chickpeas until golden on outside).
- In a bowl, whisk together eggs and milk.
- Stir in spinach (or broccoli) plus cheese into egg mixture.
- Poor egg/vegetable mixture over the cooked chicken (or chickpeas) in the skillet.
- Cook over medium low heat, lifting edges with spatula to let egg flow under.
- Cook until golden brown on the bottom and the egg is set on top (about 6 minutes).
Throw this in a pita for the sandwich edition!
Find in this recipe long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids — more of a mouthful to say than the burger itself! So let’s just call them LCPUFAs. If you were to weigh a brain, you’d discover 60% of it’s dry weight is made of fats. The brain has a particularly high amount of LCPUFAs. Especially the kinds called omega-3s: DHA & EPA. Fish is a good source. Trout, mackerel and salmon in particular. This kid friendly recipe allows kids to get creative, picking their own toppings.
2 cans flaked salmon, drained
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
2 Tbsp green onion, chopped
2 Tbsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp oil (canola or olive)
1/2 – 1 tsp dried basil
1 pinch red pepper flakes or crushed chillies
What to do:
- Mix all ingredients together in a bowl.
- Form mixture into 6 even balls. Press down on each to make a firmly packed burger patty, about 1 1/2 centimetre thick.
- Heat oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. When oil is hot, add the burger patties and cook for 4 minutes on each side, until nicely browned.
- Serve on burger buns with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, fresh dill, and other toppings you like!
This recipe puts the spotlight on zinc. Zinc is a multitasker, supporting a lot of functions in the brain and body. Zinc is a colleague to many enzymes — molecules that transform substances to move them along production lines in the body. Zinc hangs out a lot in the parts of the brain needed for learning and memory. Zinc also seems to help regulate some neurotransmitters. Beef and beans are particularly good sources of this all around important nutrient. And what kid doesn’t love a recipe with the word “taco” in it?
1 lb ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped
2 large stalks of celery, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
28 oz can of tomatoes, diced
19 oz can of kidney beans
19 oz can of black or pinto beans
2 cups frozen corn
2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp each of cumin, oregano, paprika and garlic powder
1/2 tsp black pepper
2 cups water
What to do:
- In a soup pot, brown ground beef at medium heat.
- Add the onions, celery and bell pepper. Cook until soft.
- Add the rest of the ingredients. Add water is soup seems too thick.
- Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Add extra water if getting too thick.
- Top with sour cream and eat with pita or nachos if you like!
I think my favourite aspect about these nutrients for brain function, is that they are best to get through food! Unless a child has a medical deficiency (which for these nutrients is rare), then supplementing really doesn’t do a whole lot. Plus, there are risks to supplementing too much of these nutrients (just like with any supplements).
Food is smart. It tends to give us what we need, in a form best available to us. And if we want to be smart, we can enjoy a variety foods in a variety of ways 🙂
Where to go from here?
These recipes may not directly speed up your child’s math homework, but the foods they offer can help set you and your child up for success.
This post started you off on what to feed for a healthy brain. But this is only one part of the equation. The school year can be stressful, and a picky eater may add to your worries. So if we want to also help build a healthy mindset towards food, how we feed children is just as important.
If you’d like to explore this topic further, feel free to join me for a Facebook Live discussion on Sunday September 22 at 2pm EST. Find me @brain.mind.nutrition.
Get in on this free event!
And if you want even more, subscribe to my email list (look to the footer of this webpage!). There you will get a promo code for an upcoming webinar:
Sunday September 29 @ 8pm EST
Feed your child’s brain. Nourish your child’s mind.
Save your spot for this webinar!
Reach out if you have any questions!
Best in brain health,
Krystal Merrells, RD
Explore more on the web
Nyaradi, A. et al. (2013), The Role of Nutrition in Children’s Neurocognitive Development, From Pregnancy Through Childhood, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Vol 7, Article #97
Unlockfood.ca: website with food and nutrition content developed by dietitians. Find factsheets and recipes, including more information on the nutrients described in this blog post.
Cookspiration: a website and app created by Dietitians of Canada for finding meals to suit different needs and different times of the day.