Power Up for Back to School

Gracie Cavnar
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Joey makes Guacamole.JPGNew backpack--check. New shoes--check. Pens, paper, notebooks--check, check check. Kale--check. Wait a minute.  .  . kale?  Yes. That's right.  When the children go back to school this month, don't forget the brain food.

Resist the temptation to fall back on processed and fast foods when time gets tight.  It's the worst food for a young student's brain, impacting functions from short-term memory to learning capacity.  We've long known that our brains depend on essential vitamins and minerals to function well.  Now the experts maintain that the interior of the brain is just as integral to learning as the classroom environment with mounting evidence supporting a direct link between good nutrition and your child's ability to learn.

Here are my ten tips for boosting brainpower and sending your kids to school ready to learn:

  1. Start with a good breakfast.  In the morning rush, avoid canned breakfast drinks, cold/sugary cereals, doughnuts and the drive-through.  Stick to oatmeal, fresh fruits, low fat dairy and lean proteins.
  2. Eat a handful of walnuts or pecans every day.  Rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, these nuts are a super brain food. Keep a bowl out on the counter to scoop up for a snack, toss into your salads and on veggies and chop to top fish or chicken before broiling.
  3. Offer blueberries, strawberries, pomegranate seeds and apples for desert and snacks.  Buy these high antioxidant fruits in season to keep them affordable.  A sack of apples costs less than a family sized bag of chips and powers up the brain.
  4. Use whole grain bread for sandwiches & toast.  I know kids love soft fluffy white bread, but the highly processed flour might as well be candy for its brain effect.
  5. Switch to brown rice as a side dish or added into soups and stews.  It's a great injection of Vitamin B to support good brain activity.   
  6. Keep kale chips on the counter. Kale is the ultimate super food, affordable all year long and kids love it as a crunchy snack.  You don't have to break the news that the chips are a healthy choice. 
  7. Offer whole oranges and grapefruit instead of juice.  These citrus fruits are vitamin-packed but lose their punch and fiber when reduced to juice.  What better portable breakfast, desert or snack?
  8. Replace shortening, vegetable oil and butter with olive oil.  We have all heard for years about the dangers of fats, but olive oil is rich in Omega-3s and a brain builder.
  9. Drink tea instead of carbonated beverages.  Hot or cold, tea is packed with flavenoids, which boost brain function.  Use honey to avoid the sugar blues.
  10. Use lots of green fruits and veggies--especially artichokes, avocados, spinach, asparagus and olives--on sandwiches, in salads, soups, even scrambled eggs.

Every one of these tactics will boost your child's school readiness.  But, don't bite off more than you can chew, get overwhelmed and throw in the towel.  Introduce one new idea a week until you work up to all ten.  By Thanksgiving, the kids will be firing on all pistons.

My tips for breakfast:

Oatmeal is one of the best ways to start the day, but it takes a long time to make.  I have found a great shortcut and time saver:  Before going to bed, I bring 4 cups of water, 1 cup of steelcut oats and a pinch of salt to a boil in a pot; put the lid on and turn the stove off.  Next morning, I wake up to perfectly cooked oatmeal, scoop out a cup, zap it in the micro for 45 seconds, mash in a ripe banana and add a pinch of cinnamon.  Viola!  a fast, nutritious breakfast.  Cook enough oatmeal on Sunday night to last the entire week, store it in the fridge, and dip out daily servings.

My tips for switching to whole grain bread:

Start with a whole-wheat version that's slightly sweeter, like honey & oats or one of the white whole wheat breads on the market.  Make sure that the ingredient list begins with names of whole grains and that you are avoiding corn syrup.  Consider spending a rainy Sunday afternoon making whole wheat bread from scratch with your kids.  Besides having fun together playing with dough, they are far more likely to eat something they have made.

My tips for kale chips:

At our house, I make kale chips every night and by the next afternoon they've disappeared.   Take a fresh head of kale, tear the leaves off of their spines in handfuls and collect them in a bowl.  Rinse the torn leaves well and blot dry.  Drizzle olive oil over the torn leaves and toss with your hands to coat them evenly.  Spread the leaves in a single layer onto cookie sheets and sprinkle generously with Parmesan cheese and put in an 180° oven overnight.  The next morning, lightly sprinkle the crispy chips with a bit of salt and enjoy!

My tips for getting the kids to eat green:

It can be hard to get our kids to eat their green fruits and veggies, which tend to be the least sweet of all foods.  This is where combining them with foods they love is the better part of valor, even if it's ranch dressing.  Just make sure there is more veggie than coating!  It's better to avoid mandates like "eat your vegetables," which only turn kids off the concept and fortify their resistance.  This is where involving your kids in cooking really pays off.

My five year-old grandson spent a month with us this summer, and I had him in the kitchen everyday.  Each session would start with an exchange like this:

"Is it vegables? I don't like vegables. I don't like avocados. I don't like tomatoes."

"Did you know that avocados and tomatoes make great muscles so we can run faster?  Lets mash some up."

"Oh, this looks like guacamole.  I love guacamole! Can we have chips?" 

"Why don't we dip our carrots in it?"

"OK.  Hey! I love avocadoes!"

By the end of the month he was saying, I love about everything from peas to zucchini, but he still insisted that he didn't like vegables.

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