Food for thought

A healthy school lunch can boost your child's brain power

A healthy school lunch can boost your child's brain power
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Good eats

Lunch box tips

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Winnipeg Health Region
Published Monday September 6, 2010

The old adage about "you are what you eat" is especially relevant when it comes to getting the kids ready to go back to school. It turns out that what you pack in your kids' lunch boxes has an impact on their grades as well as their physical and social development.

Kids who are undernourished don't have the fuel to pay attention in class, perform well in athletics and keep up with their class in general.

To boost your kid's brain power, their lunch box needs to be loaded with healthy foods - fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lean meat or fish - foods that contain protein and carbohydrates that power the body and boost the brain, says Lorna Shaw-Hoeppner, a community nutritionist with the Winnipeg Health Region's ACCESS River East health centre.

And remember to include milk products or milk alternates. "Kids can significantly increase bone mass during the teen years, and milk products provide a good source of calcium and Vitamin D, which builds strong bones," says Shaw-Hoeppner.

Avoid the pitfall of too much junk food, such as chips and pop, which are high in empty calories, salt, sugar and bad fats, and which leads to unhealthy bodies and sluggish brains.

"When a child is well-nourished - not just not hungry, but well-nourished - they feel better about themselves, and when they feel better, they do better," she says.

While there is no magic food that can turn a child or teen into a genius or star athlete overnight, research suggests that a steady diet of certain foods will enhance cognitive skills, increase energy and improve your mood.

Good eats

Research suggests that some foods may enhance energy, mood and brainpower. Here are some examples:


Proteins are necessary for building and repairing body tissues, such as muscles and organs. They are also essential to the production of neurotransmitters, which allow brain cells to communicate with each other. A balanced diet will supply you with all of the protein you need. Lean meats, fish, poultry, dairy, eggs and beans are rich in protein.


The brain consumes more energy than any other organ in the body. As a result, it needs a steady flow of nutrients. Slow-burning complex carbohydrates provide the energy the brain needs to function properly. Sources include brown rice, barley, pastas, vegetables and fruits, whole grain breads and cereals, and legumes such as beans and lentils.

B-complex vitamins

These vitamins help our bodies turn the food we eat into energy. B vitamins ensure optimal energy production and are important for healthy blood and tissue repair, and help the brain function at maximum capacity. Foods that contain more than one type of B vitamin include sunflower seeds, wheat germ, spinach, broccoli, bananas, whole and enriched grains, and lean chicken, beef, and fish.


Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that is reported to have all sorts of benefits for brain, body and mood. There are three main types: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexonic acid (DHA) and alpha linolenic acid (ALA). DHA is thought to be beneficial for brain development and brain function, while DHA, ALA and EPA may play a role in enhancing mood. The best sources for DHA and EPA include salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, sardines and rainbow trout. ALA can be found in flaxseed, flaxseed oil, walnuts, canola oil margarine and soybeans. Other foods, including eggs, cheese, yogurt, bread and pasta can be fortified with ALA or DHA.

Iron-rich foods

Iron is essential for forming healthy red blood cells and transporting vital oxygen to all the cells in our body. Iron deficiency can cause fatigue and low energy, irritability, and affect concentration and cognition. Foods rich in iron include meat, poultry, oysters, beans, lentils, and fortified cereals and grains.

Antioxidant-rich foods

Research suggests that antioxidant-rich foods may help protect brain power and immune function, as well as stave off disease. Brightly coloured vegetables and fruits are rich in antioxidants.

Lunch box tips

Keep supplies handy to make packing lunches easier. Set up a lunch drawer for all your packaging needs such as insulated containers, plastic containers, plastic wrap, stickers, napkins, straws, and plastic spoons, knives and forks. Keep a special shelf or area in your refrigerator and cupboard for lunch fixings. Keep your pantry stocked so the food is there when you need it. Involve your children in planning and preparing their lunch, as they are more likely to eat it.

Use insulated containers for keeping hot foods hot and ice packs or frozen juice boxes for keeping cold foods cold. Keep lunch boxes and reusable water bottles clean.

Aim to include at least three choices from Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating- with one of the choices being a vegetable or fruit:

  • a vegetable or fruit - fresh, canned, dried, or juice;
  • a grain product (whole grain or enriched) such as bread, tortilla wraps, bagels, buns, crackers, pasta, rice, muffins;
  • a milk product or substitute such as milk, yogurt, cheese, yogurt drink, fortified soy beverage;
  • some meat, fish, poultry or meat alternative such as an egg, peanut butter, humus or other legumes in soups, salads and dips.

Source: Dietitians of Canada

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