Testing times….

Laura Sharp

The return to school after the Easter hols will mean only one thing to loads of you with children of certain ages…..yep, exam season’s looming. That means nerves, grouchiness and worry all round. But the one thing you don’t want to be worried about is what they’re eating.

I know we say it all the time, but it’s worth repeating: research proves that when kids eat better, they do better. They’re more focused on learning after a good meal, while some smaller studies we’ve done found pupils got better results in schools offering healthy breakfasts compared to those that weren’t.

Back in 2009, we ran a survey of 500 13-17 year olds and found that:

  • 42% said they chose chocolate as their snack of choice when revising. A third (33%) chose fizzy drinks and a similar number chose biscuits (31%). One in four (26%) went for caffeine-laden energy drinks
  • When we asked what were their top ‘brain-fuelling’ foods to help them concentrate, they did put healthy choices on top: one in three chose fish (34%) and fruit (33%) and a quarter chose pasta (25%) and vegetables (24%). Chocolate (15%), fizzy drinks (12%), sweets (8%) and biscuits (7%) were relegated to the bottom
  • But even though they were clearly clued up about the benefits of healthy eating, eight out of ten (79%) agreed they’re more likely to snack more and eat less healthily when studying or revising
  • Four in ten (42%) said they’d skipped meals to make time to study
  • Only 48% agreed eating properly was important to help you study
  • Less than 20% felt that getting enough exercise was important in the runup to exams.

So what should they be eating in the coming weeks of revision and exams? Here are my top tips:

  • Get their brains in gear with a good breakfast. Breakfast gives us the energy we need to get our brains going again in the morning. So base their breakfasts on starchy foods like bread or cereal – don’t forget, wholegrain varieties release energy more slowly, which means they’ll keep them going for longer. Try muesli or porridge with low fat milk; yoghurt and a handful of dried or fresh fruit; wholegrain toast with tomatoes and mushrooms; or peanut butter or baked beans on wholegrain toast. Add a glass of fresh fruit juice for the vitamin C – this helps them absorb more of the iron from cereals
  • Take advantage of school breakfast clubs. Many schools lay on free breakfasts during exam periods to help students start the day – a great way to get them focused and calm the nerves
  • Remind them to have a drink. If they’re complaining of feeling tired and lethargic during a revision session, it could be a sign that they’re not drinking enough water. Our bodies need this to work properly, so make sure their glass is topped up. Try to avoid the soft drinks – they might stave off thirst, but they can be full of sugar and empty calories. And kill the caffeine. Energy drinks laced with the stuff are often popular with teenagers, but it’s like sending your body on an energy rollercoaster
  • Encourage them to stay in school for lunch. A good school meal from the canteen is chock-full of the nutrients they need for a heavy day in the exam room
  • Get them friendly with fish. A great source of protein and essential vitamins and minerals. At least two portions per week is the ideal, including one of oily fish like salmon or sardines. Check out the Marine Stewardship Council’s website for loads of great recipes
  • Don’t let them skip meals. They’ll find it difficult to concentrate if they’re not eating regularly enough. Little and often are your watch-words!
  • Make every snack count. Sweets and biscuits might give them an instant hit but they release energy quickly. Instead try foods like bananas, dried apricots, wholemeal toast and unsalted nuts – they all contain slow release energy that will keep tummies full and minds on the books. There are loads of great snack ideas here
  • Iron power. This is a common problem for teenagers anyway – if they’re not getting enough iron, their energy levels start to drop and they find it harder to concentrate. Try giving them more pulses like chickpeas or lentils, eggs, red meat, dried fruit and leafy green vegetables like spinach. Getting some vitamin C at each meal helps their bodies absorb more iron, too. Check out tasty school recipes for high-iron dishes (just reduce the quantities if you’re making them at home)

Laura’s one of our nutritionists. Email Laura.

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