A registered dietician spotlights the most important meal of the day and offers tips (and recipes!) for overcoming the top three reasons kids give to skip breakfast.
A typical morning: You’re brewing coffee, and you hear your child’s alarm go off in a sleepy, dark room down the hall. It’s a school day, and the daily battle between school and the snooze button has begun. When you can hardly get your child dressed and out the door in time for school, how can you get him to sit down and eat a meal? If making time for breakfast is a source of stress, it’s time to start thinking outside the cereal box.
Because breakfast is such an important meal, we need to find ways to offer kids nourishing food they’ll accept and have time to eat—whether that’s at the table, in the car, or in the classroom.
Benefits of Breakfast
But let’s back up for a moment. Why do kids need that morning meal? There are three major, well-researched benefits. If your children eat breakfast, they’re more likely to…
1. Maintain a healthy weight. It may seem counterintuitive, but kids who eat a regular breakfast are less likely to be overweight than breakfast skippers, even if they consume more calories, according to a report from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Skipping breakfast is also linked to lower levels of physical activity, which could contribute to body weight concerns.
2. Meet their nutrient needs. Most kids don't meet the recommended servings of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains or key nutrients like vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and fiber, which are crucial for healthy growth and development. In fact, a study by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that 80 percent of girls and 75 percent of boys ages 4-18 don’t get enough calcium—a nutrient that’s found in breakfast foods like milk, yogurt, and fortified cereals.
3. Succeed in school. Children metabolize blood sugar faster than adults, so their bodies are starving for fuel when they wake up in the morning. A healthy breakfast helps stabilize blood sugar levels and supports focus, memory, and problem-solving at school. In fact, a study by Deloitte and Share Our Strength reports that breakfast eaters achieve 17.5 percent higher scores on standardized math tests and are 20 percent more likely to graduate from high school than skippers.
Top 3 Reasons Kids Skip Breakfast
Knowledge is one thing, but action is another. How can we get kids to actually eat something in the morning? Once you find out why they're skipping, you can apply a solution tailored to their concern.
Your Child Says: "I'm not hungry…"
The Solution: Offer new breakfast foods and/or drinks
If your child wakes up without an appetite, ease them into breakfast with a low-fat smoothie or fruit shake. They may tolerate a liquid breakfast better than solid food.
Other kids may rebuff the morning meal because it’s simply not what they want to eat. Perhaps they prefer a hot breakfast or they don’t like the low-sugar cereals you’ve selected. One study found that while parents commonly identified cold foods like cereal as a good breakfast, students identified hot foods such as eggs. Check out this list of quick and healthy breakfast ideas and offer something new to your child.
If you recently switched to low-sugar cereal, consider giving your kids up to one teaspoon of table sugar to sprinkle on top, plus sliced fruit for natural sweetness. Consider this 2010 study in Pediatrics, which compared the breakfast eating behaviors of two groups of kids, one given high-sugar cereals and one given low-sugar cereals. Both groups had access to table sugar, sliced fruit, orange juice, and skim milk. The kids in the low-sugar group ate almost half as much refined sugar as those in the high-sugar group, even though they were able to add as much table sugar as they wanted. Plus, the low-sugar kids were 27 percent more likely to put fruit on their cereal. Bottom line: It’s okay to let your kids add a little sugar to healthier cereals if it helps them enjoy it. Even the healthiest cereal isn’t nutritious if your kids don’t eat it.
Your Child Says: "No time!"
The Solution: Quick grab-and-go meals or breakfast at school
You’ve probably heard this line before—it’s the most common reason given by both parents and students about why breakfast gets skipped. The solution? Have wholesome, frozen breakfasts ready to toast or microwave, or keep super-fast staples on hand like whole wheat bread, peanut butter, and bananas for a grab-and-go meal.
Another option is breakfast at school. Most schools in New York and Connecticut offer free breakfast before school, and some have moved it into the classroom.
Your Child Says: "I’m on a diet."
The Solution: Explain the benefits of breakfast eating, and keep an eye on behavior.
If you think your child is dieting, ask why she’s skipping, and then present the facts about the importance of breakfast, advises Lindsay Birchfield, a registered dietitian at Melainie Rogers Nutrition and the BALANCE eating disorder treatment center in Manhattan. Birchfield, who primarily works with teenage girls, has found that basic education can be very effective.
Sometimes, an obsession with food and calories can signal an eating disorder. Early symptoms may also include behavior changes including rigidity or irritability around food and/or your child emotionally shutting down and becoming uncharacteristically quiet, Birchfield says. She recommends that parents address their concerns with their child, validate them, and offer options for care that include visiting a therapist, dietitian, or eating disorder treatment program. Most importantly, she adds, "try to be understanding and consistently provide support and a listening ear."
Caroline Kaufman, MS, RDN, is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, and nutrition consultant who specializes in childhood and family nutrition. Her award-winning blog, Sweet Foodie, features family-friendly meals, time-saving tips, and food photography. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.