What foods can make your child smarter? Truth be told, there are a lot of foods that can improve learning, understanding and memory. Brain power relies on many factors, including physical activity, sleep and food.
As a pediatric nutritionist, I work with babies, toddlers, children and teens. Each of them has a growing brain, which makes nutrition and food choices an important consideration.
In this article, I’ll cover some of the most nutritious brain foods for kids. I’ll tell you why they’re important with quick tips for incorporating them more regularly into your child’s meal plan.
Want to know a little secret?
You’ll read a ton of articles on the best foods for the brain, but many of them miss a big point.
Especially when it comes to kids.
Rather than focusing on the whole child (food + feeding + developmental stage), what you’ll typically see is a list of the best brain food.
I don’t think that’s enough.
Why? Because you can load your child’s plate with the most nutritious brain-boosting foods, but unless he’s willing to eat them, it doesn’t matter.
Am I right?!
How to Feed for Better Brain Power
We all want our kids to have a healthy brain. We all want our kids to be as smart as possible.
To learn, pay attention, and remember what they’ve learned. We want to maximize their cognitive capabilities.
In other words, we want them to soar intellectually.
Food is quite powerful in this endeavor, but so is feeding.
The brain uses nutrients for a variety of tasks. In babies, nutrients such as omega-3 DHA helps build the framework of the brain.
This framework allows the information highway (or, neurotransmission) to establish and transmit messages across the brain throughout childhood.
During the teen years, pruning begins, getting rid of the unused pathways to make way for more efficient memory, understanding and decision-making.
If you’ve raised a teen, you can attest to the forgetfulness that is common in this age group. That’s the brain pruning and re-establishing new roadwork for information transmission.
All this to say that when feeding your child, the timing and structure around meals and snacks helps ensure adequate nutrition is available to the brain (via the bloodstream) when needed.
Brain Food for Kids
In children with ADHD, we see how important nutrition is to the developing brain. We have research that tells us learning, focus and attention suffer when kids don’t get adequate nutrition.
If you have a child with ADHD you’ll want to read this article to help you fine tune his overall diet.
While there are a number of foods that can be tied to brain health, I’ve outlined what I consider some of the top foods that can strengthen your child’s brain power today, and promote brain health for tomorrow:
Blueberries: Rich in Flavenoids
These little blue gems are full of flavenoids, plant compounds found in most fruits and vegetables. They help improve your memory, ability to learn and general thinking.
Flavenoids also help slow the age-related decreases in mental ability.
Blueberries are an incredibly convenient and versatile food. Include blueberries on cereal, in salads, yogurt parfaits, in a smoothie, or just grab a handful. Any form of blueberries will do: fresh, frozen, dried, or freeze-dried.
Olives: A Source of Good Fats
Eating olives regularly may lead to less brain deterioration over time. That’s because mono-unsaturated fats (or MUFAs) promote the transportation of more oxygen to the brain.
Saturated fats (from meats, dairy, fried foods), by comparison, may stiffen cell membranes.
The mono-unsaturated fat found in olives and other foods like salmon gets incorporated into all of our body cells. MUFAs are considered “good” fats and it’s good practice to include them in your child’s regular diet.
Use olives as snack food, as a side dish in lunch boxes, or as a pre-dinner appetizer. And don’t forget its side product, olive oil. Also a great addition to your child’s diet.
85+ Healthy Snacks for Teens!
Nuts: Full of Vitamin E
Nuts are also a source of mono-unsaturated fat. They have another important nutrient, vitamin E, which reduces the risk of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s by squelching brain cell-damaging elements called free radicals.
A little bit goes a long way. Make sure to pay attention to the portion size when eating nuts.
You can add nuts to cereal or as a yogurt topper, snack on them alone, or sprinkle on top of salad or cooked veggies. If you have a nut-allergic child, seeds like pumpkin or sunflower seeds offer similar benefits.
Fish: An Omega-3 Food
Eating fish regularly seems to have an effect on brain size (mass), and may slow down the aging process of the brain.
The oils (omega-3 fats) present in fatty fish help enhance problem solving, concentration, and memory.
Get the fish habit started early. While the goal is to offer 2 servings of fatty fish (salmon, halibut, mackerel, trout) per week, the truth is even getting one serving a week is progress in the right direction.
Limit mercury-containing fish like swordfish.
Dark Chocolate: Full of Flavenols
Dark chocolate has been found to increase blood flow to the brain, and improve thinking and mood, mostly due to the presence of cocoa flavenols (an antioxidant) and caffeine.
Think about sweets—if you’re offering them, choose sweets that add to health, not take away from it.
Avocado: A Delicious Healthy Fat
Naturally rich in healthy fats (omega-3 fatty acids), avocado improves blood flow to the brain, a natural way to enhance brain ability.
Mash avocado on sandwiches in lieu of mayonnaise. Chop it into cubes as a finger food, or serve a halved avocado with a spoon and squeeze of lemon juice and sprinkle of salt (my personal favorite).
Eggs: Good for Memory
Children have a developing memory center, which is forming during the first 6 years of life. Choline is an important nutrient in this process.
One yolk has about 200 milligrams of choline, which meets or nearly meets the needs of children up to 8 years.
Eggs also contain iron, folate, vitamin A and D (if enhanced), which are important for normal growth and development.
Children can have an egg a day. Keep the variety coming with scrambled, poached, hard-boiled, loaded with veggies in frittatas, quiches and omelets, and of course, included in baked goods.
Check with your healthcare provider if your child is dealing with a high cholesterol level.
Other Brain Boosting Foods for Kids
If these foods don’t spark your child’s interest, there are other foods that may get the job done.
- Any kind of berry – strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, mulberries, dark cherries, goji berries
- chia seeds
- sweet potatoes
For example, Brainiac yogurt contains a brain pack of nutrients including DHA, EPA and choline. Some dairy milk is fortified with DHA, an omega-3 fat for the brain.
Brain Vitamins for Kids
As you can see, there are many, many important vitamins and minerals that help build the brain and optimize its functioning.
One deficit can cause problems, but the good news is that the brain is constantly developing and it can overcome deficiencies. Be sure your child’s diet is well-balanced, nutritious and includes these brain boosting foods and nutrients:
- The B vitamins
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- vitamin E
The omega-3 fats are the ones I worry about the most, especially when it comes to children, and that’s because the intake of this nutrient from food is quite low.
Food and Children’s Brain Development Facts
Some of the latest nutrition research on brain development in children has found the following:
- Kids who consume more snack foods and sugary drinks scored lower on standardized academic tests.
- Children who have good hydration (drinking) habits score better on cognitive flexibility tests.
- Indian babies who received a multi-micronutrient powder and early learning interventions showed better expressive language, visual reception and social-emotional behavior.
- About 45 nutrients are key to brain health, according to scientists.
How will you incorporate these brain foods into your child’s diet?
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This post was updated in November 2022.