Foods to help kids FOCUS in school

It’s that time of year again. School is about to begin (or already has for some of you) and the kids are (about to be) out of the house for much of the day…Yippee! said all the parents. This means it’s time to get back into the habit of packing lunches (Boo!) and sending kids off to school with a load of goodies to fill their bellies. But did you know you’re not just feeding kids’ tummies when you give them food? You’re feeding their brains and nervous systems too, and there are actually some types of foods that can be used to help increase kids’ attention and focus during the school day.

Vegetable Medley: 26/09/06

Photo credit: Ken Banks via Flickr CC

As you pack your child’s lunch, remember to send them to school with foods that will help them F.O.C.U.S.!

F: Fiber and whole grains both help slow down the speed at which sugar enters the bloodstream. So when kids eat fiber and whole grains as part of a healthy snack and/or lunch, they are less likely to experience a spike in blood sugar levels, and this helps them avoid a “crash” in energy later on. More stable energy levels equal better potential for focus. Some kid-friendly foods filled with fiber and/or whole grains include plain popcorn, beans, avocado, hummus, almonds, bananas, whole wheat pasta, quinoa, brown rice, edamame, whole wheat bread (different than “multi-grain”, which is not whole grain), fruit with skin (like pears and apples), berries (especially blackberries), and oatmeal-based products (but watch out for the added sugar in things like oatmeal cookies that will cause that crash later on!)

O: Omega-3 fatty acids contribute to brain function and cognitive behavior and can be found in kid-friendly foods such as avocado, tuna, tilapia fish sticks, salmon, extra virgin olive oil, almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and macadamia nuts.

C: Crunchy and chewy foods are one of the best kept secrets when it comes to foods that help kids focus. Though it’s common knowledge among pediatric occupational therapists, not a lot of people know about it for some reason, so I’m telling you now! Foods that are crunchy or chewy can provide a lot of “heavy” input to the jaw because the muscles really have to work to break them down, and this particular type of sensory input helps increase focus and attention. Obviously you don’t want to go overboard and send your child to school with a jawbreaker candy or tootsie pop everyday, so try foods like hard crackers, pretzels/pretzel rods, peanut butter (watch out for nut allergies, of course), cheese, nuts, granola bars, corn nuts, carrots, celery, broccoli, sliced bell peppers, snap peas, apples, fruit leather, or dry cereal (granola is nice and crunchy).

If your child already works with an occupational therapist, I bet they would be THRILLED if you reached out and asked what foods you could pack for school that would meet their individual sensory or attention needs!

U: Giving kids unprocessed foods will help reduce the amount of trans fats and high fructose corn syrup they eat during the day, which means they will be more likely to eat fresh foods that will keep their energy at a balanced level and help them maintain their focus. Remember, “processed foods” are foods that have been altered from their original state, and they are EVERYWHERE. They often contain ingredients such as white flour, added sugar, added salt, partially hydrogenated oils (the trans fats), and high fructose corn syrup. Think of it this way: if a food can sit on a shelf for weeks or months on end without going bad, then it’s most likely processed. Conversely, unprocessed foods will “go bad” more quickly but will provide your child with healthier fuel to help their body and brain stay energized and focused during the school day. I know it seems impossible to feed a child food that isn’t processed (hello, mac ‘n cheese!), so be realistic with what you know your child will eat and go from there. Every little bit counts.

S: Food and drinks that require sucking can really help kids get focused and increase their attention. This is another trick pediatric occupational therapists keep in their back pocket that not too many people know about. Sucking through a straw or straw-like container can be a very “focusing” activity, so if you send kids to school with suckable fruit pouches and a pop-top water bottle or straw for their milk (how about a fun crazy straw?), you will be setting them up for school success!

BONUS FOOD: Protein. I couldn’t figure out how to fit protein into my tidy little acronym, so it’s just gonna have to hang out here by itself. But just because it didn’t make it into the top five doesn’t mean it’s not important! Protein contributes to stable energy levels (which contributes to focus and attention), so be sure to include kid-friendly protein in your child’s lunch with foods like hard boiled eggs, beans, nuts (again, be vigilant about avoiding nut allergies), quinoa, meat (the less processed the better), hummus, cheese, milk, yogurt (easy on the sugar!), or avocado/guacamole.

So there you have it. Don’t feel like you have to try all these foods at once or that you have to strictly follow these ideas. Find what works for your child and allow him or her to help you come up with ideas for new combinations of “focus foods” (like apples and cheese or peanut butter-filled pretzels). When you pack your child’s lunch in the morning (or the night before, if you’re really ambitious), do a quick scan of their lunchbox and ask yourself: 

Am I helping my child F.O.C.U.S.?

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*This is not individualized nutritional advice! If you feel your child has significant difficulties focusing in school or you have specific nutritional questions about any of the above-listed foods, be sure to bring it up to your child’s pediatrician. He or she will (hopefully) be your best resource for addressing your child’s specific needs and pointing you in the right direction. And if your child already sees an occupational therapist, check with her or him for specific recommendations regarding your child’s particular sensory needs. This post is not an exhaustive list of foods because there are even more food- and drink-related ways to help kids stay alert and attentive during class, if you can believe it! Another post for another day, I suppose. But I hope this is a good start.

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Mama OT In addition to being mama to two sweet little boys and wife to a crazy awesome husband, Christie is a Registered & Licensed Occupational Therapist (OTR/L). She holds a B.A. in Psychology with a Minor in Education from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA...Go Bruins!), and an M.A. in Occupational Therapy from the University of Southern California (USC OT). She has experience working as a pediatric OT in early intervention (birth to 3), clinic-based, and school-based settings. Her mission with is to encourage, educate, and empower those who care for children. Christie loves that she gets to PLAY when she goes to work, is hopelessly addicted to Kettle Corn, and is known for being able to turn virtually anything into a therapeutic tool or activity, from empty food containers to laundry and everything in between. Learn more about Christie and what inspired her to become an OT.

Occupational therapy (OT) is a holistic profession that helps people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities, also known as “occupations”. Some OTs help people diagnosed with disability, injury, or disease. Others help prevent disability, injury, or disease. Because of occupational therapy, people of all ages are able to say, "I can!" no matter what their struggle. Isn't that amazing?!

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Please provide appropriate supervision to the child in your care when completing any activities from this site. You as the grown-up will need to decide what types of products/activities on this list will be safe for your child. If you’re not sure, check with your child’s occupational therapist or pediatrician. Appropriate and reasonable caution should be used when implementing any ideas or activities from this site, particularly if there is any risk of injury (e.g., falling, crashing), choking (e.g., small parts), drowning (e.g., water play), or allergic/adverse reaction (e.g., materials/ingredients). The author and blog disclaim liability for any damage, mishap, or injury that may occur from engaging in any activities or ideas from this site. 
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3 thoughts on “Foods to help kids FOCUS in school

  1. Thanks Chrisite, I’ll share this with my parent friends sending kids back to school this week. What recommendations do you have for selecting lunchmeats. I don’t know much about which is the least processed. Also, what do you think of a slice of lime to help a child focus mid-morning in class? (say, a 9-year-old child, ha ha)

    • As far as lunch meat goes, pieces of actual chicken or turkey will probably be the least processed. I also like the Boar’s Head brand from many grocery store deli counters, though it’s obviously more expensive than a pack of Oscar Meyer. Tuna can be a good option as well.

      As for the lime, I’m glad you brought it up. Yes, sour flavors are alerting, so a bite of sour fruit or candy (obviously not going overboard on sweets) can help kids increase attention to task. Every child responds differently to different amounts of sensory input, so you’ll have to feel it out & do some trial and error to see what helps. Good luck!

  2. Pingback: Xtra Help For Kids Who Can’t Focus… A to Z Challenge | Frugal Full Time Mom

So, whadya think?