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 some basic nutrition 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 their long-term health 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 can help support optimal brain health for their child/children. Brain development is on-going 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.
From birth to 6 years old, socialisation, cognitive, motor, communication and emotional development is the focus. From 7 to the mid 20s the connections further develop to establish faster signalling, self-control and decision making, which are the last areas to mature.
Key brain nutrients
The development of the brain thrives on food diversity and requires a wide range of nutrients, while there are some key nutrients that play a larger role, which include:
Protein provides the building blocks for brain structure and maintenance and is also essential for neurotransmitter production, which influence mood, thoughts and facilitates the communication between the cells of the nervous system. A reduction in protein may lead to smaller brain growth, so protein should be included in each meal with a recommended intake of between 15 to 28g a day depending on the age of the child.
Focus on: Eggs, fish, meat, nuts, seeds, legumes and lentils.
The brain’s dry weight is made up of 60% fat. Fats are essential for all cell membranes, cognitive function and mood. 25% of the brain’s fat is made up of the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA, which is essential for structure, function, metabolism of glucose and for reduction of oxidative stress. Supplementation throughout childhood, has shown improved cognition, focused attention, and a profoundly positive effect on neurotransmitters and mental health. It has also been linked to decreased neuro-developmental disorders, lower rates of allergies, atopic conditions and improved respiratory health. There is also some evidence it can improve sleep quality and duration.
Focus on: Eggs, fish, meat, nuts, seeds and avocado.
Supplement: As the body relies on dietary sources, it is worth considering/suggesting to parents an omega-3 fatty acid supplement for your/their child/children high in DHA and EPA.
Carbohydrates provide glucose and fuel for the brain but carbohydrates such as white bread, rice and sugary foods rapidly convert to glucose and can have a detrimental impact and negatively affect glucose metabolism. Regulating blood glucose levels is important for mood and concentration and will also have an anti-inflammatory effect.
Focus on: Slow release carbohydrates such as wholegrain options (oats, brown rice, wholewheat/seeded bread), include protein with carbohydrates at mealtimes and/or increase vegetable consumption. Swapping beige foods for green can help to increase vegetables. Try alternatives such as courgette/carrot spaghetti, sweet potato noodles, cauliflower rice or bean mash.
Iron increases brain energy production and is required to supply oxygen. The relationship between iron and cognitive performance has been well researched, so if there are any concerns abut a child’s development it’s worth suggesting they are checked for anaemia.
Focus on: Meat, eggs, quinoa, grains, legumes, lentils and broccoli. Eating these with vitamin C rich foods, such as peppers, sweet potato and tomatoes will support absorption.
Iodine is required for the synthesis of thyroid hormones, which regulate the body’s metabolic rate, heart and digestive function, muscle control and brain development. Any deficiency can impact on brain growth, signalling and brain weight. Low levels of iodine have also been associated with learning difficulties.
Focus on: Sea vegetables (samphire, kelp), yoghurt, eggs, tuna, cod, salmon and strawberries.
Zinc is abundant in the brain and contributes to both structure and function including neurotransmitter release and the development of the hippocampus for learning and memory. Several studies suggest supplementation may impact on cognition, motor development and memory, specifically during puberty.
Focus on: Meat, seeds, nuts, lentils, legumes, quinoa and fish.
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, which contain both protein and fibre throughout the day also support to keep levels even.
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.
?Within early years settings a project about ‘Feeding my growing brain’ can be an ideal opportunity to talk about what the brain does and introduce key foods and lifestyle factors that support the brain to grow and develop.
A simple and delicious brain food recipe to try in your setting is Mackerel pate - see page 24 to make it yourself!
Being informed of all 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 development, increased concentration and learning.
For more food fun in your setting, sign up to the Youngest Chef Award. This award is for Early Years Foundation Stage pupils (ages 3-5) and is written by teachers for early years practitioners/teachers. It is designed around the popular children’s book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle and has been developed and launched by The Food Teacher™. The award is a ‘Mini Muncher Challenge’, which can be delivered across 5 sessions (every day over a single week or once a week over a 5 week period) with 50 minutes of planned teaching time each session. Find out more at; https://youngest.youngchefoftheyear.com/
About the author:
The Food Teacher™ Founder and Director, Katharine Tate, has worked as a teacher and education consultant internationally in primary and secondary schools for over 20 years. Qualified as an award winning registered nutritional therapist, Katharine, combines her unique education and nutrition expertise to offer schools, organisations and families advice, education programmes, practical workshops, and individual/family clinical consultations. She has written and published several books: “Heat-Free & Healthy”, the award-winning
“No Kitchen Cookery for Primary Schools” a series of Mini-Books and has also
co-authored the award-winning “Now We’re Cooking!” Delivering the National
Curriculum through Food. She has also launched a programme of Young Chef
awards for schools, which support delivery of the curriculum and nutrition. In
2019, over 4,000 children completed the awards across the UK.