Just don’t call it breakfast

Before they leave for school, get them to eat something

By M.E. Malone
Globe Correspondent / September 2, 2009

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It’s 10:40 on a summer morning and 3-year-old Theo von Gottberg, who’s been up for hours, has eaten no more than a handful of Cheerios and a slice of watermelon for breakfast.

“It’s a challenge,’’ says his mother, Antonia von Gottberg, a Cambridge engineer. “Who knows what he wants to eat and when he’ll eat?’’

Every morning, von Gottberg offers Theo and his brother, Max, 7, a variety of foods such as cereal, fruit, toast, eggs, English muffins. Max, who likes artichokes and lots of other non-kid foods, happily eats traditional breakfast fare most mornings. Theo seldom wants to eat when he wakes up. His mother says he will sometimes have a drink instead, and he likes kefir, a yogurt beverage. “Once he’s had some kefir, he’s probably had about 250 calories,’’ she says. “I feel better about that.’’

Getting kids to eat a healthy breakfast that will propel them through the rest of the morning - especially once they reach school age - can be tough. Tight schedules, morning grumpiness, and parents who skip breakfast themselves may lead to half-eaten bowls of soggy cereal or the temptation to make a go of the morning with little more than a sugary snack bar.

“I’m just not hungry when I wake up,’’ says Maya Davis, 11, of Milton. Most school days, she doesn’t feel like eating breakfast and often takes a snack to school so she can get through her morning classes. Weekends, her mother tries to make zucchini and banana breads and other healthy alternatives so that Maya has some portable choices on school days. Her sister, Talia, 7, reports that she eats most anything for breakfast and loves homemade peanut butter-banana smoothies.

The first meal of the day is so important that some parents will offer anything, even typical lunch items, to get their kids to eat (see related story on shaking up the breakfast routine). “Absolutely, parents should think about nontraditional breakfast foods,’’ says Suzanne Rostler, a clinical nutrition specialist at Children’s Hospital’s Optimal Weight for Life program and coauthor of “Ending the Food Fight: Guide Your Child to a Healthy Weight in a Fast Food/Fake Food World.’’

The key to a good breakfast - “such an important meal,’’ says Rostler - is a combination of a healthy carbohydrate that offers fiber and a protein food. Carbohydrates provide energy, while protein and a small amount of fat help kids feel full. Scrambled eggs, whole-wheat toast, fruit, and low-fat milk, for example, fits the bill (eggs and milk are protein; toast and fruit offer carbohydrates). But a breakfast burrito with leftover beans and salsa or a grilled cheese and turkey bacon sandwich on whole-wheat bread with a piece of fruit on the side are other good choices; even leftovers of lean meat or chicken from last night’s dinner, along with toast and fruit, do the job. Nut-butter sandwiches are great if made with higher-fiber breads and low-sugar fruit spreads.

Rostler, the mother of two, ages 7 and 9, knows the challenges and offers this advice: “Parents need to be parents.’’ If you don’t want to negotiate with your children over breakfast items, keep only healthy ones in the house. “I know my older one gorges on junk food at other kids’ houses. They know that when they’re here, this is what we eat,’’ she says.

So, is it better to feed a child a high-sugar, low-nutrition option, such as a Pop-Tart, rather than send him to school with an empty stomach? Rostler hesitates, then says she would not offer the Pop-Tart. “That’s not a formula for success on a midmorning math test.’’

In the Davis household, weekend mornings are often used to gear up for weekday breakfasts. Maya loves to help her father cook stacks of pancakes, some of which are destined for the freezer to be eaten with fruit for breakfast later in the week. (Talia confides that Dad sometimes eats too many of the leftovers.) Yogurt and ricotta provide the pancakes with boost of protein.

“We’ve definitely tried, especially over the last six months, to eat healthier foods for all our meals,’’ says the girls’ mother, Tamar. “If [Maya] only wants a piece of toast before school, I try to offer a handful of nuts. Sometimes I win the battle. Sometimes I don’t.’’

If feeding breakfast to one or two kids can be problematic, what do you feed to more than a thousand of them? Breakfast sandwiches are among the most popular items at a series of Kids Cafes at Boys & Girls Clubs in the Boston area, sponsored by the Greater Boston Food Bank. Joyce MacDonald, program manager at the food bank, says as the breakfast offerings in the summer have gotten heartier, more kids are eating them. Most of the clubs offer hot breakfasts two days a week, and they are more popular than the mornings when cereal, fruit, and milk are served.

“I think the breakfast sandwiches are easiest for the kids to eat,’’ MacDonald says. “It allows them to eat a little breakfast before they go off on a field trip. Even the teenagers.’’

Even parents whose kids are “easy’’ about the morning meal lament that negotiation seems to come with the territory. “Sometimes it’s ‘no second bowl of cereal until you drink all the milk’ ’’ from the cereal bowl, says Tammy Vyas of Milton, who has two boys, Austin, 10, and Ryan, 8. For the most part, her boys are good at breakfast. They don’t care for milk, so they often drink water. “We’ve tried chocolate milk, strawberry milk, low-fat, no-fat. It’s not easy,’’ says Vyas. She makes eggs or cheese omelets so there’s some protein in their breakfast, sometimes with turkey bacon. Ryan wishes aloud for homemade waffles served in bed. Austin admits he’s not a big fan of fruit, except for apples and pears. Other than that, he reports, “I pretty much eat anything.’’

Convenience foods can be a crutch at breakfast, but not necessarily a healthy one.

Smoothies? “Read the ingredient list,’’ advises Rostler. “They can be loaded with sugar.’’

Energy bars? Ditto.

Bagels? “A bagel is a carbohydrate that offers very little in the way of fiber and other nutrients. “It’s a big bowl of sugar in disguise,’’ she says.