Best Brain Foods for Kids

What your child eats has a major impact on learning. Here are the best foods to help your child make the grade.

  • <p>Best Brain Foods for Kids</p>
    Text by Karen Ansel, MS, RD, John Lamb/Digital Vision/Getty Images

    Brain-Boosting Foods

    If you want to give your kids an academic edge this school year, you may ask them to study harder, spend less time in front of the TV, or log more hours at the library. But those aren’t the only ways to boost their brainpower. Studies have found that the quality of a child’s diet is directly linked to academic performance. Before your kids hit the books, make sure they fuel up with these power foods first.
  • Slow-Cooker Veggie Chili
    Text by Karen Ansel, MS, RD, Jennifer Davick; Buffy Hargett; Vanessa McNeil Rocchio


    Chili, a unique combo of beef, beans, and tomatoes, dishes up a hefty dose of iron, a mineral kids need to deliver oxygen to their brains. Making yours with lean cuts of beef, like top or bottom round, can keep it healthy by slashing saturated fat. You can also trim the fat by using 95 percent lean ground sirloin and draining off the excess fat after sauteing. Prefer to go meatless? No worries. The tomatoes in chili are rich in vitamin C which helps your child soak up more iron from the beans.
  • Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce
    Text by Karen Ansel, MS, RD, Photo: Becky Luigart-Stayner; Styling: Rose Nguyen


    If you feel guilty about serving white pasta to your child, you don’t have to. Unlike white bread, semolina flour used to make most dry pasta is packed with slowly digested carbs which kids need to provide a steady stream of fuel to their brains. It’s also fortified with iron too. Just one cup of cooked spaghetti serves up roughly 20 percent of the iron a school aged child needs in a day. Top it with tomato sauce and you’ll up its iron absorption even more.
  • egg-burrito
    Text by Karen Ansel, MS, RD, Jim Franco


    Kids who eat breakfast perform better on math and reading tests and pay more attention in school. Why not scramble up some eggs? They’re rich in choline, a nutrient needed to produce acetylcholine (a neurotransmitter that’s critical for memory). For a quick, portable morning meal, tuck a scrambled egg into a warm corn tortilla and top with a dash of salsa. One large egg sports half the daily choline a four to eight year old requires and a third of the choline needed for kids ages nine to 13.
  • Guacamole with Chipotle Tortilla Chips
    Text by Karen Ansel, MS, RD, Photo: Karry Hosford


    It’s hard to learn if you can’t see the chalkboard (or – these days – the computer screen). Avocados are rich in lutein and vitamin E, nutrients that are linked to better eye health. And because lutein and vitamin E require fat for absorption, monounsaturated fat rich avocados are the perfect delivery vehicle. Mash some up and serve with all natural tortilla chips for a healthy after school snack.
  • Cookies-and-Cream Milk Shakes
    Text by Karen Ansel, MS, RD, Photo: Mark Thomas; Styling: Stephana Bottom


    Milk doesn’t just do a body good. It does a brain good, too. A North Dakota State University study released in 2011 found that children who drank more milk - and less fruit juice and sweetened drinks - had higher standardized test scores in both math and reading. Moo juice supplies nine essential nutrients, including protein, which keeps blood sugar on an even keel, helping your child stay energized and focused.
  • Ravioli with Peas and Shallots
    Text by Karen Ansel, MS, RD, Photo: Anna Williams; Styling: Anna Last

    Cheese Ravioli

    When it comes to learning, breakfast isn’t the only meal that matters. Kids who eat dinner with their families are better students than those who don’t. Plus, eating together is the ideal opportunity to learn all about your child’s school day. If getting a healthy meal on the table is a challenge for your busy family, stock your freezer with frozen ravioli. Opt for one made with ricotta and you’ll score more protein than two large eggs and as much calcium as you’d get from half a glass of milk. And nobody will know it took you just 10 minutes to make.
  • banana-nut-oatmeal
    Text by Karen Ansel, MS, RD, Quentin Bacon

    Instant Oatmeal

    If your child is a late night nosher, toss the cookies and whip up a bowl of instant oatmeal instead. It’s rich in complex carbs which promote sleep by encouraging the synthesis of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Those extra zzzs may help your child do better in the classroom according to a 2010 Sleep Medicine study which found that kids who slept longer performed better on both perceptual reasoning and IQ tests.
  • Pan-Fried Chicken Fngers with Spicy Dipping Sauce
    Text by Karen Ansel, MS, RD, Photo: John Autry; Styling: Cindy Barr

    Enriched Whole Grain Cereal

    Whole grain cereal doesn’t just make a healthy breakfast, it’s a smart snack (or main dish!), too. These Pan-Fried Chicken Fingers feature a whole grain cereal coating, giving them that satisfying crunch. Whole grain cereal is rich in fiber and energizing complex carbs. Be sure to read labels carefully, and choose one that’s enriched with zinc, a mineral that’s especially abundant in the brain and is linked to attention span and learning. While you’re at it, choose one with added vitamin B12, another nutrient that’s important for memory.
  • Salmon Chowder
    Text by Karen Ansel, MS, RD, Lee Harrelson

    Boneless Canned Salmon

    Getting kids to eat their two weekly servings of fish can be a challenge. That means they may not be getting all the long chain omega-3 fats, DHA and EPA, they need for optimal brain development. Enter canned salmon. Easy to camouflage, it’s a cinch to morph into salmon cakes, tuck it into fish tacos, or stir into a chowder for a fast, no-fuss fish meal. Thanks to its long shelf life it’s an ideal pantry staple for nights when there’s no time to shop for dinner.
  • Raspberry-Lemonade Spritzer
    Text by Karen Ansel, MS, RD, Photo: Jennifer Davick; Styling: Lydia DeGaris Pursell


    Your child’s brain is 70 percent water. No wonder dehydration has been linked to decreased concentration and the ability to think clearly. On the flip side, a little H2O can go a long way. Children in a British study who were offered extra water performed better on visual attention tasks than those who sipped less. Making sure your child has a water bottle in his backpack can ensure he gets the fluids he needs to flex his mental muscle all day long. At home, try a refreshing, fizzy drink that packs them with water while giving them a hit of tart flavor to enjoy with dinner.
  • yogurt-berry-cups
    Text by Karen Ansel, MS, RD, Rita Maas


    If your child is moody and can’t concentrate, regularly eating yogurt might help. According to a Texas Tech University study, probiotics, live bacteria found in certain foods like yogurt, can enhance the production of brain chemicals that alleviate stress and anxiety. That said, all yogurts aren’t created equally. Steer clear of kiddy versions that have been pumped up with sugar and artificial colors and opt for lower sugar adult varieties instead, like the Greek yogurt called for in this easy after-school snack.
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