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University of Illinois Extension

Back to School: Start Smart with a Healthy Breakfast

August 22, 2013

Local Experts Share How to Make Great Breakfast Choices on Tight Time or Money

ST. CHARLES, Ill. – The start of the school year often means new schedules and routines, which may result in a rushed or incomplete breakfast. Starting the day smart with healthy choices can provide a wealth of benefits without a lot of time or money.

"You can make breakfast simple and convenient while still being healthy," said Jessica Gadomski, Extension Educator with University of Illinois Extension for DuPage, Kane and Kendall counties. "Balance is key. It is important to have the right choices on hand at home, and the MyPlate model can serve as a great meal planning tool."

MyPlate is the USDA program to promote healthy eating, and the visual aid features proper portions of fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and protein divided into sections on a plate.

"An ideal breakfast would have at least four of the food groups," said Laura Barr, Nutrition and Wellness Educator with University of Illinois Extension for DuPage, Kane and Kendall counties. "More than a decade of research confirms the benefits of breakfast, which is especially critical for children."

According to the BreakfastFirst initiative, students who eat breakfast perform better in school, and have higher daily intakes of vitamins A and C, riboflavin, calcium, zinc and iron.

"Research continually shows that a healthy breakfast promotes better academic performance, attendance, behavior and focus," Gadomski said. "Food is our fuel. Much like a car, what we put in our bodies helps us function properly. Healthy foods help us not only move but think. Parents can set their children for success when they start the day smart."

A few simple guidelines can help parents and children stay on track without extra time or big budgets.

Simple and Satisfying Breakfast

"Breakfast can be a time crunch. If you are on the go, grab a protein and a carbohydrate at the bare minimum," said Barr. "A cheese stick and an apple, or peanut butter on a whole grain bagel is better than nothing."

Both Gadomski and Barr warn parents to avoid serving only carbohydrates, like grains and fruits, at breakfast. The best breakfast incorporates multiple food groups.

"A carbohydrate-heavy breakfast, like a waffle and fruit, digests quicker and your child will be hungry sooner," explained Barr. "By adding a healthy protein, such as a hard-boiled egg or glass of milk, there will be slow release of energy, which helps keep the body satisfied longer."

She also recommends yogurt-based smoothies as a great on-the-go morning option.

"Add a little milk and bananas, or seasonal berries and fresh fruits, or even frozen fruit favorites," she said. "Invite your children to help. If you give them ownership, they are more likely to adopt healthy habits."

Barr added parents should not be limited by traditional breakfast food choices. "Your body doesn't know a breakfast food from a lunch food," she said, adding a healthy non-traditional breakfast may be beans, tortillas and cheese with vegetables. Another option could be tuna or egg salad, whole wheat crackers and a favorite chunk fruit like grapes.

Stretch Time and Grocery Dollars

For many families, busy work and after-school schedules, can make balancing time difficult. Gadomski recommends weekend preparation to save time on weekdays.

"I am a big proponent of batch preparing," she said. "For example, on Sunday, you can cut up fruits and vegetables and package into serving-size containers so they are easy to grab and go throughout the week."

Keeping healthy food on hand is critical, so regular shopping is a key factor to success.

"Healthy choices cannot be made if they are not available," Gadomski said. "You also can make them affordable. Watch the circulars and grocery store apps for the best deals and crosscheck them with your list."

Families also can save by using coupons for packaged items, like cereals, and by sticking with in-season fruits and vegetables and choosing the whole option versus pre-cut. The savings easily can be $2 to $3, she said.

When choosing popular breakfast staples, like cereal and bread, Gadomski warns parents to check the labels.

"With grains, we want to aim for at least half of what we consume to come from whole grain sources, for that reason, it is important to look at the ingredients list. The first item listed should be 100 percent whole wheat or 100 percent whole grain," she said. "We also prefer it to have 8 grams or more of whole grains per serving. For cereal, watch grams of sugar in relation to the serving size."

Gadomski added parents can mix a whole-grain, unsweetened cereal with a more appealing lightly-sweetened cereal to ease transition to the healthier choice. "Presenting new choices with a familiar or favorite food is a great technique for parents."

Barr agrees it is important to keep things positive and to build on a child's preferred foods.

"You do not want to be struggling with conflicts over breakfast and miss the opportunity to send your child off with a healthy start to the day," she said. "There are ways to make a good breakfast work for your family."

For more information on healthy habits and nutrition, contact your local University of Illinois Extension office or visit http://web.extension.illinois.edu/dkk/.

Source: Jessica Gadomski, Extension Educator, SNAP-Ed, jgadomsk@illinois.edu

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