Healthy Foods Can Improve Performance at School

A healthy diet is important for all children.. Getty Images

Many learning opportunities present themselves during a typical school day. To allow a child to get the most out of each learning day, it is important to provide a child with nutritious food options. Just as you fuel up your car with gas, a body needs multiple fuel-ups during the day to keep the organs and brain fed.  When a child has a learning disability, his/her body will need finely tuned fuel readily available to tap into and use throughout the day.

A hungry child solely focuses on a growling stomach, not the teacher’s lesson plan.

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Act, a specific learning disability is “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.”

In addition to the growing energy needs of children, children need energy for the mental effort they exert as they struggle to understand their classroom work. A child with a learning disability can especially benefit by eating the right combination of foods.

You will want to pack a combination of foods that a child will both break down quickly and use immediately (carbohydrates) at the same time adding foods that will break down slowly (protein, fat, whole grains) for energy to use an hour or two down the learning road.

Foods rich in protein break down to amino acids that help the brain make neurotransmitters, aka dopamine and serotonin. These neurotransmitters help keep kids alert and stabilize mood swings.

Yogurt varieties contain both protein and carbs. All yogurts are not created equal so look for the options with 4 or more grams of protein per serving.

The yogurt varieties with >20g of sugar will break down quickly once consumed and cause sugar spikes in the blood followed by a crash which may make a child feel lethargic and irritable.

Whole grain tortillas can be wrapped up with crunchy lettuce, nitrate-free lunch meats or pepperoni slices, a few rinsed black beans, and cheese slices will add protein. Cut the tortilla wrap up and place it into a container with a lid to make colorful spirals. Additional filler ideas inside tortillas include peanut butter, sliced bananas and your child’s favorite crunchy cereal. Or, you can add avocado and string cheese slices with a couple whole grain chips/crackers or carrots/celery for a crunch. Or, you can spread cream cheese and raisins, blueberries, strawberries, kiwi or fruit slices with granola crunch or sliced almonds. The quick break down of usable energy will be the fruit/vegetable or  chips/crackers. The foods breaking down into energy 1-2 hours after eating will be the whole grain, fat, and protein foods such as black beans, peanut butter, cream cheese, raisins, string cheese, and nuts.

These foods will help children concentrate and remember facts later in the day when they need that boost of brain power to complete their learning task.

Zinc is also an important mineral in aiding the brain’s learning and memory process to focus. Pumpkin seeds, roast beef slices or fortified breakfast cereals contain zinc.

In addition, magnesium in food enables productivity in brain activity, which may help a child concentrate or calm their nerves. Foods containing magnesium include yogurt, bananas, dried fruits (look for varieties without nitrates or extra sugar), spinach leaves wrapped inside a tortilla wrap or crispy seaweed jerky slice.

A very important item to include in a snack and lunch is the drink. Water is one of the key nutrients for a body to survive and dehydration can creep up on a child quickly, resulting in a child who may complain of having a headache or difficulty staying focused. An idea to help a child receive adequate fluids would be to put a cup of water or milk/soy milk in a soup thermos with one ice cube to keep the liquid cold and to not dilute the flavor.  You can include a fun straw in the snack/lunch container. White milk, chocolate milk, soy milk contain protein and fluid. You can place the insulated soup container and lid in the freezer for 10 minutes before putting the cold liquid inside to help keep the beverage cold. Remember to pack a straw.

Also, you can ask if children can have a bottle with a sealable lid of water on their desk or somewhere in the classroom so that they are allowed to drink during the school day.

In conclusion, keep the fuels burning for children entering the school doors every day by packing a variety of energy sources to help keep their minds alert and bodies growing.

Karla Rippchen, RDN, LDN, Masters Business Management, is a dietitian consultant who lives with her family near Chicago, Illinois. Karla loves to travel and has lived in Asia and the west coast, southern and mid west areas of the USA.


The State of Learning Disabilities, Third Edition 2014, National Center for Learning Disabilities

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