Carbs or Protein? 2 Key Nutrients for Your Child’s Best Breakfast

Put the right kind of fuel in your body

Contributor: Jennifer Willoughby, MD

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It’s no secret that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It revs up the metabolism, keeps blood sugar levels steady and gives the kids the energy they need to get through their first few classes. The problem is that breakfast can only be beneficial if you put the right kind of fuel in your body. It’s all too easy to hand your little one a sugary granola bar or frozen toaster pastry as you wave goodbye, but that’s going to send kids into a slump before they do their first math problem of the day. And if you’re following suit, it will likely make you crash before your first meeting. Even coffee can’t always fix a sugar slump!

The type of fuel is important

Carbohydrates are the fuel the body uses to function, but different types of carbohydrates don’t affect the body the same way. Unfortunately, many common and easy-to-grab breakfast foods are high in carbohydrates and sugar, while low in fiber. These foods — including toaster pastries, muffins, bagels, donuts, most granola bars and sugary cereals — give kids a quick burst of energy, but that energy is then followed by hunger and blood sugar variations, which can cause irritability, poor concentration and behavior challenges, which impede learning.

Many children opt to eat their breakfast at school, either via the National School Breakfast Program or by choice. Though schools aim to provide nutritious choices for children, but they are options and in the end, the children decide what they are and aren’t going to eat. So it’s important to be aware and have a discussion with your kids about what they’re getting for breakfast. If the answer is a muffin, yogurt and juice (averaging 75 grams of carbohydrates and minimal protein), that 10 a.m. sugar slump is likely a common occurrence — all from a breakfast that most would perceive as healthy.

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Teach your child what to look for

There can be healthier choices for school breakfast, but your child needs to know what to look for, which takes some education. Schools often provide a la carte options like fruit, whole-grain and low-sugar cereals or granola bars, white milk, string cheese or entrees made with eggs to ensure protein is consumed. Any of these would be healthy options for kids to choose.

You also can complement what’s provided by packing part of the breakfast at home. If your child reports they get French toast and hash browns, encourage them to choose one of those refined carbohydrates, and bring a hard-boiled egg or some mixed nuts from home to balance the meal out with a protein. And please encourage consumption of white milk and water, rather than juice or flavored milks, which will lead to a blood sugar spike first thing in the morning.

Create a good breakfast balance

So what makes a good breakfast balance? Two key nutrients: protein and fiber. The goal for the first meal of the day is to pair a protein with a high fiber carbohydrate. These two nutrients will aid in balancing blood sugars, which is key to keeping children fueled and attentive during the day. Check out some of these breakfast duos below. Some are more time-consuming, but many can be assembled in under two minutes.

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  • Plain oatmeal (a high-fiber carb) with added nuts or nut butter (protein and healthy fats to keep kids full). Sweeten with some fruit (berries, applesauce, banana). You can also add flavorings like cocoa powder, cinnamon or vanilla extract.
  • Protein-packed Greek yogurt (plain is preferable) with berries (a high-fiber carb) to sweeten. Add a small portion of nuts or chia seeds as a healthy fat to aid in satiety.
  • Whole-grain toast (a high-fiber carb) with one to two scoops of natural peanut butter (protein). Or turn this one into a peanut butter sandwich that you make the night before and have ready to grab in the morning.
  • Hard-boiled eggs (a protein) with an apple (high-fiber carb) makes for a quick out-the-door breakfast if you’re in a bind.
  • String cheese (protein) and a high-fiber, lower-sugar granola bar (carbohydrate) is another quick grab-and-go option.

Try making breakfast sandwiches and freezing them ahead of time. Then you can pop them into the microwave for a few seconds and send the kids out the door. Try a whole-grain English muffin (high-fiber carb) with a scrambled egg and a slice of cheese (protein).

Quiche cups can be made ahead of time and either frozen or kept in the refrigerator for a few days. Mix eggs with any toppings you’d like (ham, turkey sausage, veggies), pour in a muffin tin and bake until firm. These are also fun because the kids can get involved and pick the mix-ins they like best.

This post is based on one of a series of articles produced by U.S. News & World Report in association with the medical experts at Cleveland Clinic.

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