It's conventional wisdom that everybody needs a healthy breakfast, particularly children and particularly children headed for school. In this case conventional wisdom is true. Before children walk out the door, they need to eat.
Why? "Basically they need a healthy breakfast to provide proper energy and proper nutrition for mental and physical clarity throughout the day," said Melanie Shisler Yumor, director of Food Services and Nutrition for Inova. That job includes providing breakfast for 29 youngsters at the child-care center at Fairfax Inova Hospital.
"You want to have some type of carbohydrate; cereals, not sugared but cornflakes or Cheerios that provide fiber; carbohydrates; 2 percent or whole milk; some type of fruit," Yumor added.
Oatmeal is really good, she said and added that cereals also provide the B vitamins children need. As for frozen waffles and French toast, Yumor noted that it depended on what was put on them. The waffles and toast are bread, providing grains, B vitamins and iron and really become healthy if they are served with fresh fruit or water-packed canned fruit rather than syrup.
"You have to have variety, all the food groups, a nutritional balance," she said. She pointed out that in pediatrics Inova tries to serve foods "in different shapes to make it more fun-looking. "
"A child won't eat what doesn't look good."
Yumor believes that the way to steer a child to eating well is by introducing him to healthy foods from the beginning "A child is going to grow up on what you give them," she said.
GETTING TWO OR THREE YOUNGSTERS to sit down long enough to eat something nutritious can be tough enough. Imagine preparing breakfast for 10,000 children that tastes good and is good. That's the task of Penny McConnell, director of food services for Fairfax County Schools. Each morning the children are served breakfast at 148 locations throughout the county. The county also offers the same foods at morning break for the older students.
This year the schools decided to go to a cold breakfast, one that met federal guidelines for nutrition "but was easy to pick up and eat quickly," McConnell explained. The menu includes glazed donuts and cinnamon rolls, but not the same ones that are found in the local supermarket. They are manufactured to meet nutritional standards equal to two slices of bread, according to McConnell, who said breakfast should contain the equivalent of two slices of bread or one bread and one meat or meat alternative, a source of fruit, and milk.
Breakfast, which costs a dollar, or 10 cents for those on the reduced-price lunch program, could be juice, a cinnamon roll and milk or juice, cereal plus biscuit and milk. Cereal is the most popular choice, with a variety offered including Rice Krispies, Cheerios and Chex. "Some are sweetened, some are not, " said McConnell. "When they (the students) added sugar, they got carried away." McConnell said the school tried offering yogurt, but the children prefer that for lunch.
"Breakfast is the most important meal of the day," said McConnell. "Children who do not have breakfast are not ready to learn, they are not alert." She noted that the school district feels breakfast is so important it offers free breakfast on test days, feeding an estimated 93,000 children.
The reason it offers a 10-cent breakfast in addition to the free breakfast for those who qualify for free lunch, is that "we felt those children fell through the cracks." But McConnell added "poor breakfast-eaters cover the spectrum, and poor eating habits" need to be changed. "More and more children are given responsibility for their own needs," she said pointing out that, on their own, they often don't make wise choices.
"Parents need to make sure their children eat, and they have to be role models," she said.
ACCORDING TO THE AMERICAN DIETETIC ASSOCIATION, children need to consume foods that provide energy, protein and good sources of zinc, iron and calcium to build the best bones they can. They also need phosphorus, magnesium and vitamins, particularly vitamins A and C and the B vitamins.
"Studies have shown that children who eat breakfast, perform better in school, perform better on tests and are less likely to miss school," said Diane Sylvester, a registered dietitian and nutrition educator for Inova HealthSource Program. "Also children who have breakfast have a lower incidence of obesity."
Sylvester commented that at least three food groups should be represented at the breakfast table: grains, fruit and dairy. "It's a big challenge," she said, "the older they get, the earlier they need to get to school, the less they get breakfast. So you have to make it quick and easy."
ALL NUTRITIONISTS noted that a good breakfast can be as simple as a bowl of cereal and a glass of juice. The cereal should have less than nine grams of sugar, the fruit juice should be 100-percent fruit, and the milk should be 1-percent or skim.
But even if parents can't get a child to sit down, they can still get some solid nutrition into them. For the child running out the door, Sylvester recommends dry cereal in a baggie and a banana, or one of those morning-mix packets, which she said are lower in fat than other varieties of Chex mix. Offer a muffin or a bagel or a fruit-filled breakfast bar and yogurt.
"Smoothies are easy to make, and they can drink them while they are doing other things, " said Sylvester, who added that one thing parents can do is model behavior. "Children are more likely to eat breakfast if their parents eat breakfast."
To make it easier, Sylvester suggests having simple, easy-to-fix food available and helping children get everything organized so they have a little more time.
That food does not have to be the same or even traditional breakfast food. Other suggestions are eggs, including hard-boiled, which will given children protein. "You don't have to be as concerned about cholesterol with children," she said. Eggs three times a week are fine. A parent can also offer peanut butter toast or peanut butter and crackers, low-fat cheese on bread, cottage cheese and fruit with crackers, even a slice of cold pizza (remember the three food groups).
Sylvester, who works with the community on nutrition including a shape-down program for overweight children, notes that often a child will say he is not hungry. "Just try breakfast for two weeks, and the body will adjust," she said. She noted that those who skip breakfast extend their fast, lowering body metabolism, which means they don't have as much energy and then become overly hungry. "Then you don't care what you eat, and you overeat."
GETTING BACK to well-loved foods like pancakes and waffles, the American Dietetic Association has a suggestion for waffles, which looks good, tastes good and is good for the children who will eat them.
Wacky Waffle Stacks
3 round toaster waffles
1/4 cup strawberry-flavored soft cream cheese
1 1/2 tablespoons strawberry preserves or fruit spread
1 medium banana sliced, or 6 strawberries, sliced
4 whole strawberries for garnish
Toast waffles according to package directions. Place 1 waffle on plate. Spread with 2 tablespoons cream cheese and one-half of the preserves. Arrange one-half of the sliced fruit on top, Top with another waffle and repeat layers with remaining ingredients. Top with remaining waffle. Cut waffle stack into quarters. Garnish each quarter with a strawberry. Serves two.
Offering breakfast ideas that taste good, are healthy and inexpensive is Leanne Ely, a nutritionist and former caterer, who is a food columnist and has written two cookbooks for today's families, stressing health, keeping costs down and keeping the work down. Her first was “Healthy Foods,” an irreverent guide to understanding nutrition and feeding your family well and her second “The Frantic Family Cookbook,” (mostly) healthy meals in minutes.
Getting healthy oatmeal into a youngster — not to mention raisins and milk — is easy with oatmeal cookie muffins, at 187 calories each.
Oatmeal Cookie Muffins
1 cup oats
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup honey
1/3 cup butter, melted
1 cup sifted flour
1 teaspoon baking power
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup raisins
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease muffin cups or line with paper liners. Combine oats and buttermilk, then add egg and honey. Beat well and stir in butter. Add dry ingredients and mix only until dampened. Fill muffin cups 2/3 full and bake for 20 minutes until done.