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Getting Kids to Break Their Fast

Some kids, I understand, bound out of bed in the morning eager to eat breakfast.

Not mine. Even when they bound, they mostly won't eat.

When they were little (they're now 12 and 15) and I exerted more control, they started the day with nice bowls of oatmeal. But they lost their taste for that, and neither ever developed a liking for cold cereal. We went through a long home-made pancake phase.

Nowadays, they'll occasionally team up to cook a bacon, scrambled eggs, whole-wheat toast, fruit, and milk/juice brunch on the weekend. On weekday mornings, though, my daughter usually just heats up a mug of skim-milk Ovaltine -- a fairly nutritious option that's better than nothing.

My son? Nada.

But I refuse to quit trying to get both to eat breakfast. As dietitian Angela Ginn-Meadow points out, breakfast is important in part because, as compared to other meals, it's easy to pack with key nutrients such as fiber, Vitamin C, calcium, and folate. Breakfast is thought to help kids concentrate during school. And it makes sense to fuel your body first thing for the day ahead.

Plus, I just know it can be done. "On Parenting" blogger Stacey Garfinkle tells me that breakfast is

"actually my most successful meal with the kids! Here's why, I think: First, the kids are well-rested, so sometimes breakfast can be the best family meal of the day. Experts tell us parent-folk to have family meals, but no one said they have to be dinner. Second, it's a good meal to let the kids individualize -- and choose -- what they're eating. It's easy and healthy to throw a few scoops of cottage cheese and fruit into a bowl for one and heat up some oatmeal with fixin's for another.

Inspired, I went looking for advice as to how to get my kids to belly up to the breakfast bar. Here's what I learned:

  • Ease into early eating. As Ginn-Meadow notes in today's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column, it may not be possible to touch all nutritional bases as you get a kid into the habit of eating breakfast. "We have to beat the breakfast barriers such as not being hungry in the early morning," she says. "Start with something light, such as 100-percent juice or one or two pieces of whole-wheat toast," she suggests. "Then, later on, add a low-fat yogurt or hard-boiled egg."

  • - Set an example. Kids may be more inclined to dig into breakfast if their parents do so, too, Ginn-Meadow says. Here's where my family falls short: I eat breakfast, but not until I've seen everyone off to school and work. As for Dad, a cup off coffee's all he can stomach in the morning. We need to work on this.

  • If time is the issue, organize your morning, and your kids' mornings, to allow time to eat; lay out clothes, pack lunches, and gather homework papers the night before. Stock up on quick-fix options such as cold cereal with milk, fruit, yogurt, whole-wheat bread and toaster waffles, cheese, cottage cheese so lack of time's no excuse.
  • If traditional breakfast foods don't appeal, branch out. As Garfinkle suggests, "Just like it's sometimes fun to have breakfast for dinner, try dinner for breakfast options, too." A turkey wrap, a slice of leftover veggie-topped pizza, pasta with sauce all make fine breakfasts, Ginn-Meadow confirms.
  • Accept less-than-perfect choices. James Hill, president of the American Society for Nutrition, says in my column today, "It's better to eat breakfast, no matter what you eat. Then, once you're a breakfast eater, you can work on improving your choices." So, if it takes allowing an occasional doughnut (with milk and fruit!) to get your kid into the habit of dining in the morning, you might want to relax your standards for a while.
  • Here are some other great ideas from the American Dietetic Association for getting your gang into the breakfast groove.

    Have you succeeded in getting your kids to do breakfast? Please share your strategies!

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  November 11, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
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Well, I haven't had to worry much with my kids, but they're still young. The one thing I do notice is they're not always hungry right when they wake up. Where possible, I'd encourage portable snacks that kids can eat a little later, if/when they have a break and can grab a bite.

But I was one of the anti-breakfast crew. Still am. Oh, I eat it now; after decades of avoiding it because I can't stomach standard breakfast food, I need it to keep my energy levels up. But juice, first thing in the morning? Waaaaay too much acid, makes me sick to my stomach. Cereal (hot and cold)? Tastes great -- then, an hour or two later, I get the big blood sugar crash, leaves me shaking and hungrier than if I hadn't eaten anything. Sweet things in general (including most fruits) are right out for the same reason. I definitely need protein for longer-lasting energy, but eggs/bacon/sausage seems too heavy.

So I've learned to cobble together a mishmash of standards, and pick one or two that I feel like on a given day. Options include: whole wheat toast with natural peanut butter and a little homemade blackberry jam; banana; boiled eggs; turkey sausage (I fry up a pound of links and put them in the freezer); bean and cheese quesadilla; lowfat cottage cheese; yogurt; cheese; skim milk. And, far and away the best breakfast option: leftover homemade mac and cheese, which I will happily eat three meals a day until it runs out. :-) The only key is that I have to have protein as the base -- if I want a banana, I'll have a couple of boiled eggs with it.

The one thing I would encourage parents to do is take their kids seriously when they say they don't like breakfast stuff. It took me until high school to be able to explain why I didn't want to eat some stuff (the whole "it makes me shaky two hours later" thing); younger kids can't always make the connection or have the words to describe it, they just know it makes them feel bad. If your kids are like that, then help them escape the whole annoying breakfast box and find something they can stomach -- even if it's a peanut butter sandwich or leftover mac and cheese.

Posted by: laura33 | November 11, 2008 8:40 AM | Report abuse

After many not so pleasant mornings I finally hit a bingo with homemade low sugar oatmeal cookies and orange juice. Organic raisins &/or cranberries(no pesticides), real butter and a little extra virgin olive oil (no transfats, moist) and extra egg in the batter. Quick, covers lots of bases. Freeze extra to keep from drying out.

Posted by: cycletowork | November 11, 2008 9:26 AM | Report abuse

My son is in middle school and has to get up early. Food is unappealing at that hour.Maybe that is another reason middle and high schools should push back their start times--so kids will actually eat. We require a glass of milk, as a minimum. He can put chocolate in it, if he wants--he usually doesn't. Protein, fluid, some sugar (just from the milk) and he will be able to cope, for awhile at least.

Part of last year his father let him eat a protein bar in the car. He would eat half, but it was something. It was a brand he chose and it had lots of nuts. This year, after watching him dispatch 1/2 a slice of french toast or 1/2 a pancake with maple syrup for weeks in a row, and after hearing him tell me how hard it was to focus, I asked him if he would try an experiment the next morning and eat a high-protein low-sugar breakfast. He rolled his eyes and agreed. I gave him the short version of what sugar does in your body, how your brain craves energy from sugar when you are tired, the insulin response, etc. He actually listened. I kept it short. Next day he grudgingly ate half of a soft-boiled egg with butter and a slice of turkey bacon, with half a glass of milk. When I asked him how he felt during the day up to lunch I got a thumb's up sign and "it was better, Mom, give me an egg in the mornings." And he keeps reporting that it helps--he feels less shaky, less fidgety, better able to concentrate.

My thought is just that it helps to make the case and ask them to experiment with what might work if they are older. It might not be a full bowl of cereal or a whole egg, but see if you can get them on board to try different things.

My 7 year old lives for carbohydrates and I live to get them into her with fiber and protein. Just tried brown rice cereal cooked from brown rice flour and milk with a little salt, sugar, and dab of butter. More fiber than than Cream of Wheat. She loved it. I thought it was a bit...

She goes to school an hour after her brother, wakes naturally, and wants to eat (I think there is a connection). I make sure one parent eats with each kid at least 70% of the time so it seems normal. That may mean I eat an egg with my son, and half a pear with my daughter. But I am sitting and chatting and eating and they are right there with me, doing the same.

Posted by: benbess | November 11, 2008 9:38 AM | Report abuse

I make my kids fruit smoothies. Ice, milk, fruit, protein powder. They get 15 grams of soy protein, 2 servings of fruit and a serving of calcium. It's never hard to drink a milkshake. I also add powdered vitamins.

Posted by: realgrrl | November 11, 2008 10:06 AM | Report abuse

One rule I learned years ago is that if I do not wake up hungry, it means I ate too much the night (or day) before. If anyone is looking to improve his/her weight, this is a good tool for learning to understand one's personal metabolism. Not hungry in the AM? Hmmm... what could I have skipped yesterday? For families with kids, maybe it means not serving such a hearty dinner (and/or not enabling hearty snacking into the night.)

Posted by: SlowRunner | November 11, 2008 4:01 PM | Report abuse

I'm lactose intolerant, so a bowl of cold cereal with milk is a big turn-off. As a teenager I usually had dinner leftovers for breakfast, and my dad was happy to let me (mom was still asleep at the hour we had to be up for school/work; he taught at my school). Now, peanut butter on toast is a favorite. If I have time, I also like scrambled eggs, cheese and salsa wrapped in a burrito or stuffed in pita - portable and filling.

Posted by: northgs | November 12, 2008 10:01 AM | Report abuse

This story made me laugh; as a child, I was NOT ALLOWED to eat breakfast (there isn't time, I don't want all that mess in my kitchen first thing in the morning and besides, you're going to have lunch in just a few hours).

As an adult, I don't like to eat breakfast, most things make me sick to my stomach. I certainly don't eat "breakfast" food. I like soup or cheese and crackers.

Posted by: Lalalu | November 12, 2008 2:54 PM | Report abuse

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