How Does Nutrition Affect Development and Learning in School-age Kids?

Without a doubt, food can directly affect the way a child learns, feels and thinks. After all, a child is more likely to be alert and ready to learn after eating a protein-packed salad versus devouring a deep-fried chicken patty -- with fries, of course. Nutrition has long been identified as a critical component to learning and development at any age; allowing kids to skip breakfast, eat fat-laden lunches and snack on cheese puffs after school can seriously affect the way they think, learn and process.

Malnutrition is a Real Problem

You might think that malnutrition isn’t a problem in the U.S., but consider this -- the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that millions of U.S. children suffer from some form of hunger during any given year 1. Moreover, even moderate malnutrition can negatively affect a child’s cognitive development, which will, in turn, affect his learning ability. Children who do not receive adequate nutrition can have low energy and trouble concentrating, which certainly hinders learning. Malnutrition can also affect a child’s physical growth and development, especially if it has been a chronic issue since infancy; the first three years of life are critical to a child’s mental and physical development.

Don’t Skip Breakfast

There’s a reason your mother always told you that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. According to the CDC, skipping breakfast can affect a student’s problem-solving abilities. It can also make kids tired and cranky, which will absolutely affect their learning ability. What kids eat for breakfast is important, too. Sending them out the door with prepackaged, sugary toaster pastries isn’t the answer; instead, they should choose foods that are full of fiber, whole grains and protein, like a low-sugar cereal with fresh fruit or 100-percent juice on the side. Many breakfast cereals are full of vitamins, minerals and proteins and can boost your child’s energy and immunity, as well as promote the healthy development of his cells.

Energy-fueling Lunches

Many school districts have made significant strides in replacing fat-, cholesterol- and sugar-laden foods with nutrient-rich offerings full of fiber, calcium and protein. However, just as many school districts are falling behind and continuing to serve fried, sugary, processed foods like tater tots, frozen chicken nuggets, chocolate milk and oversized chocolate-chip cookies. If you aren't comfortable with the quality of food his school is dishing up, ensure that your child will have enough energy to focus and learn for the rest of the day by sending him to school with a packed lunch. A simple peanut-butter-on-wheat sandwich with a side of carrots with milk to drink will give him the protein, fiber and energy he needs to concentrate on an afternoon of learning.

Healthy Snacking and Dinners

If your child comes home from school, drops his backpack and sinks onto the sofa with a bag of bite-sized cookies, then ingests fast food or frozen pizza for dinner, it may be time for a food intervention. After all, as your child grows, the amount of homework and after-school activities will likely increase, so now is the time to instill healthy eating habits as a family. Sugary snacks and fast-food dinners are okay every once in a while, sure. However, if they’re consumed on a regular basis, they can lead to long-term health, problems like Type II diabetes, plus they will negatively affect his ability to to power through homework problems, comprehend chapter books, or become a standout soccer player. Children need nutrient-rich foods to thrive, concentrate, perform mentally and physically, and to keep their physical and cognitive development on track. Instilling and modeling healthy eating habits now can lead to a lifetime appreciation of good eats.