School is back in session, and parents face the old dilemma: how to get kids to eat a nutritious breakfast to set them up for a successful day.

Studies have shown that children who don’t have a healthful morning meal may be restless, sluggish, and lack focus in the classroom. This can hinder their ability to learn and sometimes lead to behavior problems.

Some advice to help you get the school year started off right. 

Why a wholesome breakfast matters

Besides fulfilling the need for basic nutrition, eating a breakfast that’s rich in whole grains, fiber, and protein provides energy that supports concentration and memory. Because complex carbohydrates take longer for the body to metabolize, they don’t produce a surge of energy followed by an abrupt crash.

Kids who skip breakfast or eat a bowl of sugary cereal are likely to be sluggish and irritable by late morning. Youngsters who start the day with a good breakfast have been shown to have better problem-solving skills and hand-eye coordination.

Some good breakfast choices

Anything prepared at home is preferable to store-bought, processed foods because you know exactly what its ingredients are, including how much sugar or fat. Breakfast bars are marketed as a healthy choice, but often are loaded with simple sugars and fat.

Preparing the night before can be helpful. Try cooking a batch of steel-cut oats —enough for several days. This type of oats has a texture that some people find more appealing  than traditional oatmeal. They’re high in fiber, high in complex carbohydrates, and low in sugar. Servings can be tailored to your child’s taste by adding fresh or dried fruit, a spoonful of honey or peanut butter, or a bit of cinnamon.

Another great option is a yogurt parfait, made by layering plain or vanilla yogurt with fruit and maybe a sprinkle of granola for crunch.  Put it together the night before, then just grab it from the fridge in the morning.

Think outside the (cereal) box

For youngsters who are turned off by hot or cold cereal, there are plenty of options. Offer string cheese, cottage cheese, hard-boiled eggs, or fruit smoothies blended with some yogurt to give your kids the fuel they need.

If you are pressed for time, breakfast can be as simple as a whole-wheat tortilla rolled up with peanut butter and sliced banana to eat in the car on the way to school.

About multivitamins

For my patients, I only recommend a multivitamin if your child is not a good eater. It is better to get your nutrients from the food you eat than from a tablet. For instance, get your vitamin C from an orange or an apple a day. Get outdoors into the sunshine for vitamin D, wearing sunscreen of course. I would rather my patients buy more fruits and vegetables than spend money on a bottle of vitamins.

Dealing with the time crunch

You can take a few simple steps to make the morning rush less stressful. Set the alarm 15 minutes earlier to allow more time for breakfast. Make TV and computers off-limits to prevent distraction. Pack lunches the night before, and make sure your child’s backpack is by the door so there’s no need for a last-minute search.

Be a good role model

Studies show that children who have a nutritious breakfast tend to have a better diet overall and get more exercise.

Kids are sponges. If they see that parents are doing something or aren’t doing something, they tend to follow in their footsteps.

It’s that age-old question of nature vs. nurture. By reinforcing that breakfast, exercise, and getting enough sleep are important, parents teach their kids habits that add up to a healthier lifestyle. Those children tend to participate more in sports, do well in school, and handle stress better.

Making sure that your children start the day off right with a good breakfast is as important as making sure their homework is done. Both will put them on the path to success.

Sami Assad, MD

Dr. Sami Assad is a physician with Lifespan Physician Group Primary Care in Newport.