Vitamins, Good Fats, and Antioxidants, Oh My!: Brain-boosting Foods for Kids

We all know how important it is to eat well during your pregnancy: a healthy, balanced diet promotes growth and development of your unborn baby and consuming nutrient-rich foods increases the chances that your baby will stay healthy for years to come. (For great tips on eating and meal-planning during pregnancy, check out this The Pulse post.) After babies are born, breastfeeding continues to offer moms the chance to provide nutrients to their growing infant, but, once babies start eating solid foods, it may seem harder to give your kids the nutrients they need to grow. Read on to learn what foods are best for growing kids—and how to make them fun to eat!

Super foods for the super organ

Kids’ brains are growing and changing at a rapid pace during the first few years of their lives. Encouraging them to explore their surroundings, listen to music, and play games all promote a healthy brain. But, feeding the brain is important, too. The brain is a hungry organ and it is one of the first to absorb nutrients from the foods you eat. To keep the brain growing and functioning at its best, give it the best foods.

What kids eat affects not just day-to-day focus and thinking skills but also long-term brain health. Key nutrients to look for include antioxidants, choline, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates.

Antioxidants protect the brain against damage due to normal “wear and tear” and regular consumption of antioxidants decreases development in mental skills.

Choline helps the brain develop its memory function and it helps the brain communicate with the rest of the body.

Omega-3’s are polyunsaturated fatty acids. They are essential to brain and eye development, they improve blood flow to the brain, and they help stabilize mood. Omega-3’s have been shown to increase problem-solving abilities, concentration, and memory, and people who consume more omega-3’s score higher on mental ability tests.

Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) are considered “good” fats. They promote the transportation of oxygen into the brain and may lead to less brain deterioration over time.

Complex carbohydrates are whole grains or starches. They provide the brain with its main source of energy: glucose. (Simple carbohydrates, like those found in candies and sweets, lack fiber and cause glucose to be released into the body very rapidly and inconsistently.)

Protein, zinc, iron, folate, iodine, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 are also necessary for healthy brain and body development.

Fruits and veggies

Blueberries, strawberries, cherries, and blackberries are full of flavonoids and vitamin C. In general, the more intense the color of the berry, the more nutritious it is. Berries are convenient and versatile, making them an easy, healthful addition to your child’s diet. Add them to salads, smoothies, or cereal or serve for dessert.

Apples and plums are other antioxidant-rich fruit options when kids need a sweet snack. Remember, the skin is the best part of these lunchbox-friendly hand-held fruits.

Olives (the fruit of the olive tree) are loaded with MUFAs. They are great as a snack or side dish or on top of your favorite pizza, pasta dish, or salad. Don’t forget that olive oil offers the same benefits.

Avocados are naturally rich in omega-3’s. They are another kid-friendly snack that can be used in dips, salads, and even soups.

Colorful veggies contain antioxidants. Foods like tomatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, carrots, and spinach can be used in countless recipes or eaten alone as a snack. Spinach and kale contain folate, which is linked to a lower risk of dementia later in life. Kale is also packed with nutrients and antioxidants that help new brain cells grow. No wonder it’s called a “superfood!”  Leafy green veggies may be a hard sell for some kids, but they can easily get blended into smoothies for a tasty and fun-colored treat! Leafy greens can also be mixed with nuts for a pesto sauce.

Grains, nuts, and seeds

Whole grains have fiber, which helps regulate the release of glucose into the body, as well as B vitamins, which are necessary for a healthy nervous system. Luckily, whole grains are easy to find these days: they are in common varieties of cereals, chips, crackers, and breads. Many whole-grain options of traditional favorites, such as pasta and couscous, exist, too, which make them simple substitutes for your family.

Oats are sometimes called “grain for the brain” because of their high content of protein, fiber, vitamin E, B vitamins, potassium, and zinc. Oatmeal for breakfast will keep the brain functioning at full capacity all day! In one study, kids who ate oatmeal for breakfast did better on memory-related school tasks than kids who ate cereal.

Nuts are a good source of MUFAs, as well as vitamin E, which reduces the risk of degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. If your child is allergic to nuts, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds offer similar benefits. Peanut butter is a particularly good source of vitamin E and it is an easy kid-pleasing snack or lunch. Use it as a dip or smear it on a sandwich with a banana.

Lean proteins

Fish contains healthy fats and protein. Salmon is particularly high in omega-3’s and can be a great addition to soups or salads. Limit consumption of mercury-containing fish like swordfish and albacore tuna.

Iron is an essential mineral for concentration, and lean beef is an excellent source of iron. At your next cookout, try grilling lean-meat kabobs instead of hamburgers and hot dogs.

Eggs are an excellent source of protein and the yolks contain choline. One yolk has enough choline to meet the daily nutritional needs of a child up to 8 years old. Eggs also have iron, folate, vitamin A, and vitamin D (if enhanced). Eggs are a simple addition to any breakfast, hard-boiled eggs make great snacks, and breakfast-for-dinner nights are a fun family tradition.

Beans contain choline, protein, fiber, complex carbohydrates, and lots of vitamins and minerals. Kidney and pinto beans contain more omega-3’s than other beans. Beans can be mixed into salsa or pasta sauce, tossed in a salad, or mashed and spread on a tortilla.

Dairy products have loads of protein and B vitamins, which are important for brain development. They are also a great source of vitamin D. The fats in dairy products, such as full-fat Greek yogurt, help brain cells send and receive information: try mixing in fruit, cereals, or even dark chocolate chips (which are loaded with phenols that increase blood flow to the brain and improve thinking and mood) for a fun, healthy treat.

Add some color

It may be hard for some families to get all these nutrients on a regular basis. Some families have food restrictions or preferences that eliminate certain food groups, and others may simply not be able to afford nutritious foods: meats, fish, and fresh fruits and vegetables can be expensive. But, if you try to include a variety of simple, colorful foods in your child’s diet, you will be putting them on the path to long-lasting brain health.

Jennifer Gibson
Dr. Jennifer Gibson earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry from Clemson University and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the Medical College of Virginia School of Pharmacy at Virginia Commonwealth University. She trained as a hospital pharmacist and is the author of clinical textbooks, peer-reviewed journal articles, and continuing education programs for the medical community, as well as a contributor to award-winning healthcare blogs and websites. In her free time, she enjoys running, reading, traveling, and spending time with her family.

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