Great food and nutrition can have a massive impact on your child’s brain development. Fiona McDonald Joyce gives her recommendations for parents feeding their own baby Einsteins
We parents are an insecure breed, always secretly ranking our offspring against their peers. When we’re not basking in secret smugness that they have walked/talked/potty-trained/passed Grade 8 violin before the others, we’re desperately hoping that our child will at least fall into the ranks of ‘normal’. Of course, every child will have their own particular strengths and weaknesses, just as every (or almost every) parent learns to relax a little over monitoring their child’s progress. But wanting the best for our children is instinctive and with that in mind I am focusing on the importance of a balanced diet in building a healthy brain plus the specific nutrients required for mental performance.
Found in meat, fish, eggs, cheese, yogurt, nuts and seeds and beans plus pulses including soya.
The benefits: The amino acids which make up protein are converted into neurotransmitters which are the brain’s postal service.
Found in oily fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines, kippers, herring and anchovies. Also found in nuts and seeds like walnuts and pumpkin seeds although in a less easily used form than oily fish.
The benefits: They enable the transmission of neurotransmitters to send and receive information. Studies have shown that babies who have not gotten the omega 3 fat DHA in their diets have significantly less of it in their brains than those who have. Low levels of the DHA in early life can impair eye sight and brain development.
Found in grains, bread, pasta, flour, rice and starchy vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, carrots and beetroot. Also found in beans, pulses and fruits.
The benefits: They are converted into glucose which is the brain’s petrol. Low blood sugar levels can lead to muddle headedness and irritability.
Found in meat, fish, eggs, dark chocolate and cocoa.
The benefits: It’s good for focusing attention and has shown to be low in children diagnosed with ADHD (archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, December 2004).
Found in meat, eggs, sea food, dark chocolate and cocoa, beans and pulses as well as nuts and seeds.
The benefits: Zinc is the memory mineral and may aid learning.
VITAMINS AND MINERALS
Found in whole, unprocessed foods such as fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans and pulses and wholegrains such as oats, brown rice, wholemeal bread and pasta.
The benefits: They help to process the nutrients required for proper brain functioning.
Found in fruit and vegetables, particularly dark green leafy veg such as broccoli and spinach, brightly coloured types like sweet potato and red onion.
The benefits: They appear to reduce the risk of developing cognitive impairments.
Found in egg yolks (preferably free range or organic, cooked gently to preserve the phospholipids so ideally poach, soft boil or lightly scramble.) Also found in organ and muscle meats such as liver and kidneys.
The benefits: Memory molecules, enabling brain cells to communicate with each other.
Argh, I hear you groan, yet another list of ‘helpful’ parenting pointers to stick on the fridge and feel guilty about. In a bid to make this easier to achieve, here are some suggestions for simple meals which incorporate these foods, to help you to include the nutrients vital for proper brain function in your family’s diet:
Homemade trail mix
A simple snack option and a good alternative to crisps. Try Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds, raisins and goji berries (available from health food stores and larger supermarkets, these are expensive but are very high in antioxidants and minerals). Add some dark chocolate chips to encourage reluctant eaters. Protein, carbs, iron, zinc, vitamins and minerals plus antioxidants are all in there.
Add natural sweetness by stirring stewed or fresh fruit such as plums, pears or berries or mashed banana and scatter pumpkin seeds or flaked almonds on top. Try sprinkling on some cinnamon too as this not only adds flavour, it has been shown to have amazingly powerful health properties, including one study showing improvements in memory. You are getting protein, carbs, iron, zinc, vitamins and minerals plus antioxidants too in this dish.
Top wholemeal pitta breads with tomato pasta sauce and grated cheese then let children loose with different toppings; try ham, olives, peppers, mushrooms or sun dried tomatoes. Sprinkle with oregano (this traditional pizza herb is a very strong antioxidant) then drizzle with a little olive oil to prevent scorching and grill until the cheese has melted and the pittas crisped up. This tasty meal includes protein, carbs, iron, zinc, vitamins and minerals plus antioxidants too.
Salmon fish cakes
Poach or steam salmon fillets then skin and flake, checking for bones as you do so. Mix with cooked, mashed sweet potato and shape into small rounds. Flatten slightly and grill, bake or fry over a medium heat until slightly crisp on the outside. There is plenty of protein, carbs, iron, zinc, vitamins and minerals plus antioxidants in this meal.
Frittata or Spanish omelette
A brilliant way of using up leftovers from the fridge as it is endlessly variable. Try adding diced ham, cubes of cooked potato, diced peppers and frozen peas. You’ll get protein, carbs, iron, zinc, vitamins and minerals plus antioxidants and phospholipids in this meal.
Macaroni cheese with broccoli and cauliflower
A twist on a traditional macaroni cheese; use wholemeal pasta (less conspicuous beneath a cheese sauce) and add steamed broccoli and cauliflower. Another endlessly variable recipe – try sweet corn, diced leftover meat, flaked fish, sweated onion and peppers. There is protein, carbs, vitamins and minerals plus antioxidants in this dish.
Homemade chocolate mousse
This is dead easy and great fun for children to help make. Use dark chocolate with a high cocoa solids content (70 per cent or above) and free range or organic eggs. Protein, carbs, iron, zinc, vitamins and minerals, antioxidants and phospholipids can all be found in this pudding.
If you are concerned about wanting to reduce the level of ‘unhealthy’ food in your child’s diet, my advice is not to approach it in negative terms, focusing on banning or cutting down on the sugary, salty, processed foods and drinks that children love. Aim instead to try to include as many of the foods listed above in your child’s daily diet. This will quite naturally improve the ratio of nutrients to anti-nutrients within their total calorie intake, in favour of the more nutritious foods listed here. If they are filling up on more good stuff, they will be less hungry for the things you would rather they did not eat.
And let’s not forget one of the simplest ways to improve your child’s memory and attention; get them to drink more water. Being just 3 per cent dehydrated can affect memory and concentration as well as sports performance by as much as 10 per cent.