When it comes to improving brain function, memory, focus and concentration, some foods are better than others, say nutrition experts. Here’s how to serve them so your kids can get the most nutrients out of them.
Brain beneﬁts Egg yolks are an important source of choline, which is essential for brain and memory function, says Dr Han Wee Meng, head and senior principal dietician of the Nutrition and Dietetics Department at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital.
“Choline is a key component of cell membranes and this accounts for a high percentage of brain mass,” she explains.
“It’s also essential in the formation of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which carries messages to and from nerves.”
Cook it right As choline is sensitive to water and may be destroyed by cooking and food processing, you should avoid overcooking eggs, Dr Han says. (But, it’s important to remember that eating raw eggs isn’t safe, either).
Other choline-rich foods include broccoli, beans, peanuts and bananas.
The best and easiest ways to enjoy eggs are hard-boiled, scrambled, or as omelettes, says Pooja Vig, a functional medicine nutritionist at The Nutrition Clinic.
Add veggies like tomatoes and spinach to the omelette for extra nutrients.
Brain beneﬁts “Lean meats are rich sources of minerals like zinc and iron,” Dr Han says.
“Zinc forms an integral part of the structure that regulates communication between nerve channels, and a low zinc level has been shown to lead to faulty memory.
“Iron helps supply oxygen to the brain and is also in the dopaminergic pathways (these are routes through the brain by which dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is spread to a range of different destinations in the brain).
“Iron deﬁciency is associated with cognitive and attention deﬁcit.”
Cook it right “There is no apparent loss of minerals when cooking meat,” Dr Han says.
“You may lose the minerals in the cooking water, but you can use the water to prepare other dishes. Alternatively, choose dry-cooking methods like stir- frying, baking or roasting to reduce the loss of minerals.”
Pooja suggests turning lean chicken mince into patties, or threading chunks of lean meat thorough skewers and serving them as kebabs.
Eggs contain choline, which is essential for brain and memory function.
Brain beneﬁts This oily ﬁsh is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, speciﬁcally Docosahexanoic Acid (DHA), which is essential for brain growth and function, Dr Han says.
DHA is the predominant structural fatty acid in the central nervous system.
Cook it right Pooja suggests coating strips of salmon in gluten-free breadcrumbs and turning them into “ﬁsh ﬁngers” for younger kids or fussier kids who may turn their noses up at ﬁsh.
Dr Han adds that deep- frying salmon may destroy its omega-3 fatty acids signiﬁcantly, so you’re better off baking, steaming or grilling it.
“Other factors, such as the type of salmon, the health and freshness of the ﬁsh, and overcooking may also inﬂuence its fatty acid content.”
Brain beneﬁts Milk, cheese and yogurt are rich sources of calcium. Besides keeping bones healthy, calcium plays a central role as a nerve cell messenger, Dr Han says.
Cook it right Calcium is generally unaffected by cooking. Pooja recommends giving your child yogurt topped with homemade granola (avoid yogurt that contains a lot of sugar).
Milk-based smoothies that contain fruit are also delicious ways for your children to get their calcium.
If your kids are lactose- intolerant or don’t like dairy products, there are plenty of alternatives.
Pooja suggests calcium-rich foods like sardines with bones, ikan bilis, white and black sesame seeds, tofu, dark-green leafy veggies like kale, broccoli and bok choy, and bone broth (boil bones for four to six hours to extract the calcium and other minerals. Kids love this broth with rice noodles).
Nuts and seeds
Brain beneﬁts “Packed with protein and essential fatty acids, nuts and seeds are also high in vitamin E, several B group vitamins, iron and zinc, which have been shown to be important for brain function,” Dr Han says.
“Nuts and seeds are naturally high in beneﬁcial monounsaturated fats; however, limit your child’s intake if you’re concerned about her weight. Walnuts and ﬂaxseeds are particularly rich in omega-3 fats.”
Cook it right Enjoy nuts and seeds as between- meal snacks or sprinkled over oatmeal, cereal or yogurt. While roasting does not affect the nutritional quality of nuts and seeds, it’s important to remember that roasted nuts and seeds usually contain additional salt and/or sugar, Dr Han says.
Nut butter is also another way for your children to enjoy nuts.It’s important to remember that roasted nuts and seeds usually contain additional salt and/or sugar.
Whole grains, including oats
Brain beneﬁts Wholegrain foods are rich in carbohydrates, Dr Han says, and their high ﬁbre content helps to regulate and maintain the constant supply of glucose needed for brain energy and function.
They are also high in certain B group vitamins, which assist in making neurotransmitters.
The combination of nutrients in wholegrain foods has been shown to improve auditory attention and memory cognition.
Cook it right The carbohydrates and ﬁbre in whole grains remain stable during cooking, however, the same cannot be said for its B group vitamins, which are water-soluble.
Nevertheless, wholegrain foods would still have higher levels of B group vitamins than foods made from processed grains, Dr Han says.
Besides oatmeal, give your kids other whole grains like barley (add this grain to stews and soups), brown rice, or popcorn (without added butter, sugar or oil). Whole- grain pasta and bread are also good options.
Brain beneﬁts Dr Han says that beans are a good source of carbohydrates, ﬁbre and B group vitamins, including choline. If your child is a vegetarian, beans are a good source of protein, iron and zinc, too.
Cook it right Like whole grains, carbohydrates and ﬁbre in beans remain stable during cooking, although their B group vitamins are water-soluble.
Add a handful of beans to stews, soups, stir-fries or salads, serve them mashed, or form mashed beans into bean burgers and grill or pan-fry them.
Colourful fruit and vegetables
Brain beneﬁts Fruit and vegetables, especially those with coloured pigments, are rich in antioxidants, Dr Han says. Think broccoli, dark green veggies, blueberries, strawberries and red grapes.
“Antioxidants protect the body and brain against oxidative stress and free radical damage.”
Cook it right “Antioxidant loss is greatest when fruit and vegetables are cooked in water,” Dr Han says.
“It’s been shown that boiling and pressure-cooking lead to high losses of nutrients, while microwaving, baking and griddling lead to low losses. Stir-frying that’s done over high heat for a short period of time, and using a little water and oil, should also result in low losses.”
Pooja suggests giving your kids berries served alongside almond ﬂour pancakes or yogurt, or blended into smoothies.
As for veggies, chop them ﬁnely and mix them with minced chicken to make healthy burgers, or serve them with noodles, congee or broth-based soup.
The ﬁrst meal of the day is important as it helps kids stay alert and fuels them until their mid-morning snack or lunchtime.
Bonnie Rogers, a functional medicine health coach at The Nutrition Clinic, offers healthy ideas that are also quick to put together.
These are great for kids to drink on the go. Blend protein powder with fresh or frozen fruit and almond milk. Buy high quality protein powder without added sugars, preservatives, or artiﬁcial ﬂavours or colours.
Boil a few eggs the night before and store them in the fridge. Your kids can munch on them on their way to school.
Add nuts and seeds and serve with unsweetened yogurt.
Serve with berries or nuts and seeds.
HOMEMADE BREAKFAST BARS
Combine toasted oats with nuts, seeds and a bit of honey. Press into a baking tin and cut into bars when solidiﬁed. Whip up a batch on the weekend and store in the fridge. They will keep for about a week.
Prepare and cook these ahead and refrigerate. Just mix lean minced chicken or beef with grated veggies, form into patties, and bake or pan-fry with a small amount of oil.