Tips for Back to School: Fueling the Brain for Learning

by Maggie on August 31, 2010

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Have you seen that commercial?  It drives me nuts.  The kids are miserable and the father is skipping down the aisles of a business supply store with a gigantic smile on his face.  Do our kids really feel that terrible about going back to school?  And do we get that excited about the hectic school year?

Callum goes to school September of 2011 so I won’t know for another year, and that is just fine with me!  If I’ve learned anything from parenting it’s that I eat my words eventually!

I knew some of my adoring fans readers would need some help getting ready for back to school so I enlisted the help of my friend Kim from Your Green Baby.

Kim prepared a great post with tips on how to fuel your children for school.  Make sure you follow Kim on Twitter where you’ll find her tweeting great tips all day long! I’ve included some links to some of her recipes and some of my own.

If you’re looking for a good resource for caring for your kiddies throughout the school year, check out Smart Medicine for a Healthier Child. It’s an amazing resource to help you battle those bugs that come home from school.

Fuel for the Brain

Back to school season is here – yay!!!!  Back to school means routine, regular bed times and the dreaded school lunch.  As you get ready to embark on a new school year I offer up a challenge to you as a parent – take time this year to focus on feeding your child for optimum learning, fuel that brain with the right foods and sit back and watch as your child excels in school.

So just exactly how do you fuel the brain for optimum learning?  Your child’s brain needs exactly what their body needs – a diet high in fruits, vegetables, healthy proteins and whole grains – in other words a well balanced real food diet.


Fueling the brain starts with breakfast.  Breakfast means “breaking the fast”; the body has been without fuel all night long, breakfast is the time to refuel, to nourish and to kick start the body.  It is the time to restore energy in the brain that was depleted overnight and an opportunity to fill up your child’s “tank” with the right fuel for a quality day of learning.

Studies show breakfast eaters achieve higher grades, pay better attention and participate more in classroom discussions, all great reasons to make sure your child enjoys a healthy breakfast.

What should you feed your child for breakfast?  Here are a few ideas:

•    Oatmeal with dried fruit topped with grated apple, cinnamon and a touch of maple syrup, and a slice of whole grain bread with nut butter
•    Whole grain toast with egg and a side of fruit salad
•    Smoothies – frozen berries, banana, water, hemp seeds, chia seeds, handful spinach, blend and you have breakfast in a cup, add a homemade muffin and you have a great start to the day
•    Breakfast burritos – scrambled egg plus toppings of your child’s choice – avocado, tomatoes, sliced peppers, cheese, etc.  Wrap in whole grain tortilla and enjoy!
•    Homemade granola with milk of your choice topped with fresh fruit
•    Pancakes – make on the weekend and freeze, in the morning pop them in the toaster, add fresh fruit and maple syrup and serve with a scrambled egg on the side

The brain has chemical messengers, known as neurotransmitters that send messages from one brain cell to another; eggs are a super breakfast food because they provide choline.  Choline is a precursor for acetylcholine an important neurotransmitter involved in muscle control, memory and sustaining attention.  Oatmeal is also a super breakfast food because it delivers a good mix of carbohydrates, protein and fibre.  In one study oatmeal eaters did better on memory related tasks than the cereal eaters and the breakfast skippers.

So before your child heads out the door ensure they have fueled their body and brain for optimum learning with a balanced nutrient dense breakfast.


After sitting in class all morning tackling math problems, reading, and learning about science your child’s brain will be in a state of depletion, it will have used up its stores of glucose (carbohydrates are converted to glucose in the body and stored for energy.  The human brain can only use glucose for energy.) It is necessary to provide a nutrient dense whole foods lunch to refuel the brain for afternoon energy and learning.

Lunch should consist of brain boosting glucose sources including:

•    Fresh fruit
•    Vegetables – raw, cooked, steamed
•    Legumes/beans
•    Whole grains

As well as lean protein sources to slow the release of glucose which means sustained energy.  Ideas include:

•    Lean meats (skip deli meats, they contain nitrates which are known carcinogens – instead cooked extra meat at dinner to make sandwiches, wraps or to stuff in a pita)
•    Nuts and seeds (if allowed)
•    Nut butters (if allowed)
•    Dairy (if tolerable)
•    Quinoa
•    Eggs
•    Bean dips

Make lunches the night before to reduce the morning craziness and allow your child to be involved with lunch preparations.  Giving children a choice makes them feel like they have a little control and will increase the likelihood they will not only eat but enjoy their lunch.


Snacks are important too!  Students are usually given a mid morning and mid afternoon break – these breaks are excellent opportunities to provide quality brain foods for your child.

Great snack ideas include:

•    Homemade trail mix – low sugar cereal, nuts (if allowed), seeds, dried fruit, pretzels, etc.  Dried fruit provides iron which is necessary for healthy brain tissue.
•    Homemade muffins
•    Homemade snack bars
•    Fresh fruit
•    Vegetables – cut up into bite size pieces for ease of eating
•    Hummus and pita

No discussion of fueling the brain would be complete without discussing fat.  The brain is 60% fat, it is the primary structural component of brain tissue.  Fat has an influence on brain function and we must get it from our diet.

Omega 3 fatty acids, in particular DHA, are the main fat in the brain, but if levels in the diet are not adequate, the brain will use other fats in its place, unfortunately function can be impaired.  DHA is found in cold water fish, fish oil and algae.  If your child is not much of a fish eater, supplements can be found in liquids and capsules for fish oil and capsules for algae.

We do have the ability to make DHA from another omega 3 fatty acid, ALA found in flax seeds, flax oil, hemp seeds, hemp oil, chia seeds and walnuts.  The conversion from ALA to DHA is not always effective in the body and unfortunately we have no way of knowing it if is or isn’t, so it therefore is best to get some DHA into your children for optimum brain function.

There are some foods that can cause brain drain, these include:

•    Processed foods
•    Foods high in sugar
•    Fruit juices/drinks
•    White bread
•    Foods with additives, food colourings, sweeteners and hydrogenated fats
•    Soft drinks
•    High fructose corn syrup
•    Foods with frostings

Avoid these foods in school lunches, better yet avoid them all together and choose to fuel your children with real food.  Real food will fuel your child’s body for growth, development and health and will fuel the brain for optimum learning.

Good quality nutrition is essential to a good quality day at school.  Feed your child well and watch as they enjoy, excel and achieve at school.

More back to school recipes:

Carrot, Zucchini, Apple Muffins
Morning Glory Muffins
Buckwheat Muffins
Granola Bars
Quinoa Date Squares

You can also find this recipe and many more ‘slightly indulgent’ recipes at Simply Sugar and Gluten-Free .

Have you read my other friend Kim’s back to school post over at Cook It Allergy Free?  Check it out – it too is a great resource.

Food For Thought: Are you paying as much attention to what you’re eating as you are to what your children are eating?

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Sophie August 31, 2010 at 6:37 am

Hello Maggie!

Like you stated here , that’s the way I also like & love to eat. But my husband, I can’t totally change his eating ways,…but God, I try!,…a lot!

Your buckwheat muffins & GF granola bars, I recently made & they were amazing in texture &in real flavours!


Janice August 31, 2010 at 11:13 am

We also need to teach the kids to make good nutritional choices, especially when there are dietary restrictions like gluten-free. Nobody wants to see a return to the gender-stereotyped home economics classrooms and curriculum, or the tuna casseroles, but how about some basic principles and pragmatic instruction that would transform daunting chores into manageable and rewarding pursuits?

Home Economics Class: It’s Not Like You Remember


Kim - Cook It Allergy Free August 31, 2010 at 12:15 pm

Maggie, I love this post!! I was going to do a breakfast idea post similar to my lunch one, but now I might just send people to yours instead!! It is full of some great ideas!
ANd Thank you so much for linking up my Lunchbox ideas here, too!!


Maggie September 1, 2010 at 9:46 am

Thanks so much Kim! I so value your opinion! You can definitely send your readers here but I really really want to see your lunch post so DO IT! 🙂
You’re welcome, I love sharing the link love.xo


Cucee Sprouts August 31, 2010 at 1:36 pm

What a great article. Here are some ideas for healthy back to school snacks and lunches


Maggie September 1, 2010 at 9:44 am

Thanks for the feedback, and thanks for the link to your blog post. Looks like you have lots of great snack food ideas over there!


gfe--gluten free easily September 1, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Great post, Maggie! I do get a bit of a chuckle out of that commerical though. I love it when my blogging friends explain the science behind what we need. 😉 I had an egg and almond butter for breakfast and tuna fish with veggies and hummus for lunch. My brain felt fed for a while. Still fighting jet lag though, so it’s wavering a bit now … Thanks for sharing this info, dear! Even we adults need it. 🙂



Maggie September 3, 2010 at 3:08 pm

Hi Shirley – Thank you. I’m lucky to have Kim as a resource for my blog and my parenting! Sounds like you had a protein-packed day! Will definitely help the jet lag! It’s so important that we take care of our bodies, even when we’re too tired or sick. Eating right is the key to health. Glad you liked the info.


Medifast Coupons September 2, 2010 at 9:19 am

Great back to school tips, thanks for sharing. I don’t have children at home anymore but have a great little grandson starting his adventure of school. Have printed your post to send to my daughter with hopes she takes some of your advice. Start them off right has always been my motto, and can’t stress enough to her how important a proper diet is to their little ever growing brains. She might take advice from someone other than her mom.


Maggie September 3, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Thanks for passing the information along. I love any tips or ideas that are meal related and healthy. I always find inspiration in what others are doing. I completely agree with you – start them off right! Then they’ll have the advantage of lifelong health and wellness!


decafmom September 7, 2010 at 9:19 am

Thank you so much for including the list of “brain drain” foods we should avoid! I recently wrote a post about these ingredients and WHY each of them is detrimental.

Of course all your homemade food recommendations are great, but the truth is, a lot of people still turn to convenience foods. All too often these ingredients are overlooked — especially because they are contained in “trusted” national brands — and they foil our good intentions.


Maggie September 8, 2010 at 6:51 pm

Thanks @decafmom for the comment and link to your post. The more information the better! It’s true that most people still turn to convenience foods but I really see a shift in the way we’re eating and viewing food. Some day!


AmandaonMaui January 16, 2011 at 2:22 pm

This is a wonderful post, not only for parents but also for college students like myself (and everyone else too!). We all use our brains all day long, and we all use our bodies in some way throughout the day, so we need super premium fuel to keep our engines running cleanly and efficiently so we can get where we are going and back again (sorry for the trite car metaphor, but it works).

There are now many nitrite and nitrate free lunch meats on the market, but they do tend to be a little pricier. So, if a family does serve up some chicken or roast turkey breast the night before it’s very easy to convert it into a sandwich.

I don’t know if all schools give kids breaks mid-morning and afternoon. I’ve been out of the public school system for 7 years now (yup, I’m a youngin’) but we didn’t get those breaks. We had less than 6 minutes to get from class to class in high school, and we didn’t even get that in elementary school. So, there’s not much time to stop and have a snack (if you have time to at all). Even in kindergarten we were on a strict lunch only regimen. It might just vary by state. I grew up in Florida, and I don’t think here in Hawai’i kids get snack breaks either.

It would be nice if they did though, and especially if those snacks were healthful snacks!


Maggie January 17, 2011 at 8:32 pm

Hey Amanda – Thanks so much for the excellent comment! I think I need to come to Hawai’i just to check out the gluten-free snack scene 🙂


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