Children tend to be naturally inquisitive and boundless in their approach to understanding the world around them and learning new concepts. The early years setting provides an opportunity to work with children and their families/carers on the foods they consume. Helping them understand the basics of nutrients and the importance of balance in their diet at an early age can impact them in the short term, as well as setting them up well for future developments as they mature. Both factors are also fundamental to behaviour, as a child who can focus for even short periods of time will be able to engage with new experiences which will assist their processing, understanding and ultimately their progress and development.
The developing brain:
Brain structure is laid down by both genetics and environmental factors such as food, learning and exercise. Early nutrient deficiencies can impact on the growing brain and an awareness of key nutrients for brain development can be a factor that parents/carers can influence and therefore support optimal brain health for their child/children. Brain development is ongoing in line with its amazing plasticity though significant stages of brain development include the third trimester until age 2 when the brain undergoes rapid growth and adolescence when the brain undergoes pruning.
Key nutrients for brain health include:
- Protein provides the building blocks for brain structure and neurotransmitters. Focus on: Eggs, fish, meat, nuts, seeds, legumes, lentils.
- Fats are essential for all cell membranes, cognitive function and mood. Omega-3 fatty acid DHA is key. Focus on: Eggs, fish, meat, nuts, seeds, avocado.
- Carbohydrates provide glucose and fuel for the brain. Focus on: Rainbow of vegetables, oats.
- Iron is important for brain energy, neurotransmitters and development. Focus on: Liver, broccoli, eggs, quinoa, chicken.
- Iodine is needed for central nervous system development and any deficiencies can impact on intelligence. Focus on: sea vegetables, eggs, fish.
- Zinc is abundant in the brain and contributes to function, growth and structure. Focus on: Fish, seeds, nuts, red meat, chicken.
Within early years settings a project about ‘Feeding my growing brain’ can be an ideal opportunity to talk about what their brain does and introduce key foods that support their brain to grow and develop. Hard boiling eggs, vegetable kebabs, fish pate and avocado mousse recipes can be simple ways to engage the children in cooking with a very clear purpose for their own health and development.
Blood sugar balance
A key factor for concentration is ensuring meals and timings support a balanced blood sugar. If a child’s blood sugar peaks and troughs this can have a dramatic affect on their concentration and ultimately their behaviour. Therefore breakfast is key to starting the day and appropriate snacks throughout the day also support to keep levels even. (Follow these links to read more about breakfast and snacks).
Anti-nutrients are factors, which may have a detrimental affect on brain health for some individuals. These include trans fats, gluten, artificial sweeteners, high sugar, caffeine, and high toxin exposure (cigarette smoke, household chemicals, toiletries etc.).
Lifestyle factors that support brain health include keeping well hydrated, getting adequate sleep, exercise and learning.
Being aware of many of these factors such as key nutrients, blood sugar balancing, lifestyle factors and anti-nutrients can support early years settings to educate children and families and ultimately support optimal brain develop, increased concentration and learning.
About the author
The Food Teacher, Katharine Tate, is an award winning nutritional therapist, teacher, mum, and entrepreneur who has over 20 years experience working with children and schools in the UK, New Zealand, and Hong Kong.
She has founded The Food Teacher brand that combines her passion for education and nutrition to deliver a healthy childhood, focusing on promoting family health through food and lifestyle.