(written for a print newsletter)
Whole foods provide fuel for energy, but they also provide many other nutrients necessary to actually make energy as well as perform all other biological functions. This includes functions that occur within the brain, such as thinking, learning, behavior, coordination, and memory to name a few. Thus, without a healthy dose of nutrients on a regular basis, these functions may begin to slip.
So as your little ones head back to school, here are some great snack and lunch ideas to provide lasting energy as well as boost their brain power.
Overnight Oats: These are great for breakfast, but they also make a wonderful (and super simple) lunch or snack. Essentially, all the food your child needs is in one container. Oats are a great source of protein, carbohydrates, and fiber. This is a great combination for sustainable energy. They’re also packed with B-vitamins and brain boosting minerals, such as magnesium and zinc. In addition, oats contain antioxidants, which protect the brain from free radical damage.
The night before, simply combine a 1/2 cup of oats with a 1/2 cup of milk (dairy or dairy-free) and top with berries, nuts, and/or seeds in a small jar. Blueberries, almonds, and walnuts are especially great for the brain. For a little sweetness, I suggest a teaspoon or less of raw honey or pure maple syrup. Pop the jar in the fridge overnight, and then into a lunch box in the morning with a spoon, a bottle of water, and an ice pack. And then you’re done!
Hard-boiled Eggs: These make a great snack or lunch. Eggs provide protein, healthy fat, and a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. This includes energizing B-vitamins as well as all fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K). Pastured eggs specifically are a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for a healthy brain. In addition, eggs contain choline. Choline is necessary for the synthesis of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in many brain functions including attention.
Wild Salmon Salad: If your little ones like tuna salad, I recommend replacing or rotating the tuna with canned wild Alaskan salmon. It’s higher in Omega-3 fatty acids and has a higher vitamin content. Also, consider varieties with the skin and bones, which provide an excellent source of absorbable calcium. And while calcium is important for strong bones and teeth, it also plays a critical role in chemical signaling within the brain.
Homemade Trail Mix: If your child’s class isn’t nut-free, homemade trail mixes make the perfect snack. You can even let your little ones choose their own mix from the bulk bins at the grocery store. A combination of nuts, seeds, and dried fruits provide protein, fat, fiber, and carbohydrates to hold your child over until their next meal or snack. Homemade trail mixes also provide a long list of vitamins and minerals. Walnuts contain Omega-3 fats as well as vitamin E, a potent antioxidant. Almonds are also high in vitamin E. Pumpkin seeds are a great source of zinc, which is essential for the brain as well as the immune system.
Some children may have a hard time chewing large pieces of nuts. Therefore, I always recommend chopping nuts into smaller pieces. Further, roasting raw nuts at home with unrefined coconut oil and a dash of sea salt really brings out their flavor and gives them a wonderful texture. Coconut oil is a healthy source of saturated fat, which is essential to brain health. In fact, the brain is made up of at least 60% fat! Thus, it’s such an important nutrient for your child’s developing brain.
Fruit & Veggies: You can never go wrong with fruit and veggies for snacks or sides with lunch. They provide carbs, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant and anti-inflammatory plant compounds. These are all nutrients necessary for energy and brain power. Apples and bananas are great when paired with nut butter. Apples and pears also go well with cheese. Veggie sticks may be more appealing when paired with yummy dips, such as hummus, yogurt, and guacamole. Avocados and olives also make great snacks for the brain due to their fat and vitamin E content.
For portable snacks, freeze-dried fruits can be a great option. Just be sure to check the ingredient lists for added sugar. Kale chips also make a great snack and are easy to make or find in the store.
Homemade Yogurt Parfaits: Fruit-flavored commercial yogurts often contain a huge amount of added sugar. Thus, in some cases, they’re more like dessert than a healthy snack or lunch. Therefore, I always recommend purchasing whole-fat plain yogurt and mixing it at home with a teaspoon of raw honey or pure maple syrup. Whole-fat yogurt is rich and creamy, and it also provides brain nourishing fats and plenty of protein. Top the yogurt with fresh berries and nuts and/or seeds for a complete lunch.
Stove-Top Popcorn: Popcorn can be healthy snack when prepared at home on the stove with brain boosting fats, such as unrefined coconut oil. It takes minutes to make, and you can make a big batch to last throughout the week. Most importantly, kids love it!
While the lunch and snack ideas discussed above focus mostly on brain power, any combination of whole foods will provide your little ones with the nutrients they need to feel and perform their best.