Foods That Maximize Learning

Foods That Maximize Learning

“As you eat, so shall you think.” Everyday people make decisions about what to eat, and these foods have a direct impact on their quality of life. In fact, parents make most of these decisions for their children. Parents have to feverishly create a breakfast, pack snacks, and make lunches before rushing out the door to school. To save time, maximize my children’s learning potential for the day, and give them a variety of foods daily, I created the Healthy Food List, an easy-to-read table that lists ideas for certain types of foods for meals and snack. I hope it helps you as much as it has helped me.

The brain needs certain amounts and specific types of nutrients daily in order to function properly. Too much or too little (deficiency) of any nutrient can affect the brain, and thus learning, negatively. If we’re feeding our children the same foods daily, they might be missing some important nutrients. These nutrients greatly impact which chemicals and how many chemicals are being manufactured in the brain. These chemicals control daily behaviors or states of mind. They can make us more alert and focused, more relaxed, more hyperactive, more attentive, or down-right sleepy and unfocused.


Feed your children a great brain breakfast because teachers can do amazing things with well-fed brains!   This includes a high fiber, low-fat, low-sugar carbohydrate along with some protein. Avoid sugary pastries and sugary cereals because within 30-60 minutes, blood sugar will drop quickly leaving the child with less energy, more easily frustrated and with a feeling of hunger. Breakfast enhanced cognitive performance, particularly on tasks requiring processing of a complex visual display. Boys and girls showed enhanced spatial memory and girls showed improved short-term memory after consuming oatmeal, which provides a slower and more sustained energy source and consequently may result in cognitive enhancement compared to low-fiber, high glycemic ready-to-eat cereal (Mahoney, Taylor, Kanarek, & Samuel, 2005). It’s the most important meal of the day, and your brain can never regain the positive effects that breakfast leaves on it even if you eat a good lunch. See the Healthy Food List for specific breakfast foods.

Fruit or 100% fruit juice (with calcium) or milk + protein + whole grain = GREAT BREAKFAST


Neurons or brain cells need the following two main fuels in order to function – oxygen and glucose. Neurons cannot store these fuels, rather they use them up readily. A constant supply of these fuels is required for the brain to function. This indicates that in addition to eating three balanced meals a day, the brain benefits from several small snacks so that there is a supply of glucose when needed. Children’s brains need a refill on glucose about every 60-90 minutes. Cognitive performance can suffer when blood glucose concentrations are low (Gold, 1995). We believe that children in grades K-12 need a powerful brain snack either before or after lunch (depending on the time of lunch).   The following list of foods has great choices for snacks: nuts of any kind as long as there are no allergies; bananas, apples, raisins, grapes, oranges, strawberries, blueberries, and other fresh fruits; carrots, celery, red peppers, broccoli, cucumbers, and other vegetables (even pack a dip if kids must have it); whole wheat crackers and real cheese; yogurt with no food coloring and low sugar; whole wheat pretzels; trail mixes; pretzel rods wrapped in turkey; pita bread and hummus as dip; popcorn; soy chips or vegetable chips.

Protein + Whole Grain = GREAT SNACK


If you pack a lunch, make sure it has a protein, a complex carbohydrate, and very little sugar. Studies by Connors at the National Institute of Mental Health indicate that when sugar is eaten with a protein, the learner benefited by being more alert. Sugar is utilized differently by the brain when carried in with a protein (Connors, Keith. 1989). After consuming a protein, the brain can be more alert, focused, and have more lasting stamina. Remember to pack a variety each day rather than the same thing each day. See the Healthy Food List in order to know the best foods to pack for lunch.

Protein + whole grain + fruit + vegetable + milk = GREAT LUNCH


Send a clean water bottle to school every day. Children need the opportunity to drink water throughout the day. Students who are well-hydrated are more friendly, well-reasoned, attentive, and coherent. Research in young adults show that a mild dehydration (1-2% of body weight loss) can lead to a significant impairment in cognitive function (D’Anci, Constant, Rosenberg, 2006). If access to water is restricted, the stress response can kick in. Within 5 minutes of consuming water, there is a marked decline in the stress hormone, cortisol. Available drinking water reduces the body’s physiological response to adverse situations. We believe that water should be readily available for all students to consume when they are thirsty throughout the day.

Foods have a direct impact on our states of mind, and we need our children to be in the most alert, focused, positive, learning states of mind. By feeding them a variety of healthy foods daily and making sure they are getting the amount of foods listed on the New Food Pyramid (, your child’s learning can be maximized.

Food chart

Connors, Keith. (1989). Feeding the Brain: How Foods Affect Children. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.
D’Anci KE, Constant F, Rosenberg IH. (2006) Hydration and cognitive function in children Nutr Rev. Oct; 64 (10 Pt 1): 457-64
Mahoney CR, Taylor HA, Kanarek RB, Samuel P. (2005) Effect of breakfast composition on cognitive processes in elementary school children. Physiol Behav. 2005 Aug 7; 85(5): 635-45

Author: LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed. is the author of 11 books focused on teaching strategies: Deeper Learning (2008) and Bringing the Common Core to Life (2014) are the more recent books. LeAnn specializes in cognitive science in education by using the best tools to reach every student. LeAnn is passionate about schools becoming more empathy-centered. You can contact her: or visit her website:

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