Dec 6, 2019, 9:56:12 AM CST Oct 10, 2023, 2:16:38 PM CDT

Brain foods for kids

A registered dietitian explains how proper nutrition helps your child's brain develop

Kids at school eating lunch Kids at school eating lunch

The right food can make all the difference in your child's day. Good nutrition not only helps bodies grow strong – it can also help kids focus and even improve their behavior.

"Proper nutrition gives children's brains and bodies the fuel they need," says Marjorie Craven, RDN, LD, Clinical Dietitian at Children's Health℠. "The brain is complex. It runs all the functions of the body; and in children, it needs to do all those processes and support growth at the same time. A foundation of healthy habits is critical to helping children function as well as they can in school and at home."

The best foods for your child's brain

Kids need to eat a variety of foods at each meal for optimal brain nutrition. If you're looking for brain-boosting foods, encourage your child to eat a well-balanced diet, including:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains, like whole wheat bread, brown rice or whole wheat pasta
  • Lean protein like poultry, beef, seafood, fish, eggs or nuts
  • Low-fat dairy products

This combination of foods provides vitamins and minerals, energy from carbohydrates, protein, fat and other important nutrients to support your child's total health. Some nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, can help boost brain power too. Examples of foods high in omega-3s include salmon, walnuts and soybeans.

When any of the food groups is missing, children miss out on essential vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, protein and fat they need for growth and development.

"Think of each of these components as a building block in a tower," Craven explains. "When one block is missing, the tower is not as tall as it could potentially be. As one block is removed, the tower may wobble and topple due to instability."

In addition, be mindful of the amount of "treat" foods consumed, such as cookies, chips, candy, cake and others.

"Treat foods are a treat and should be eaten in moderation," Craven says. "Often, these treat foods replace essential foods. Try to limit the frequency of treats for your child to up to two times per week."

Hydration and brain function

One more key food for your child's brain isn't really a food at all. It's water.

"Water is essential," says Craven. "Not only does it hydrate the body, it allows the brain to better function."

Many children don't get the recommended amount of water each day, which can leave them dehydrated and struggling to remember what they have learned. Encourage your child to drink plenty of water throughout the day to improve brain function and overall health. See recommended water intake for kids and tips for getting kids to drink more water.

How to eat for brain development

Consistency is key when providing children with the literal building blocks of success for brain health. While the right foods are important, it is just as important to help your child eat at consistent mealtimes throughout the day and to avoid hunger.

"Children need three meals every day and one to three snacks as well," says Craven. "When you space that out over the time a child is awake, they should be eating about every three hours."

Parents should ensure their child eats breakfast every day, whether at home or school. In addition, sending a snack to school can help children make it until lunchtime without the distraction of hunger. When your child arrives home, have a healthy snack ready, like low-fat yogurt and pre-sliced fruits or vegetables.

Eating a well-balanced diet is important for a child's brain health year-round – and especially during exam time. When studying for an exam, start to prepare as early as possible. Support your child by offering balanced meals and snacks and encouraging proper hydration and healthy sleep habits. This supports learning and retention of the exam material.

Overall, Craven says it is important to plan ahead for good nutrition and make it a family priority.

"Children rely on their parents to set a good example," Craven says. "Eat with your children to model healthy eating behaviors, and have fun spending that time together, too."

Download a free recipe e-book

Looking for easy meal ideas to keep your family healthy? Download 10 Easy and Healthy Weeknight Suppers to receive dietitian-recommended recipes your kids will love.

Learn more

The Pediatric Clinical Nutrition Program at Children's Health helps families develop a nutrition plan that is best for your child. Our team of experts works with families to provide dietary support for your child's health.

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