Back to School: Healthy Plant-Based Breakfast for Kids
It’s pretty well-known that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and this is especially true for kids. Starting the day with a balanced breakfast has been associated with healthy growth and development, better school performance, and tons of other benefits.
With school back in full-swing, it’s more important than ever for kids to start the day off with a nutritious breakfast. But let’s face it—the mad rush to get the kids up, dressed, ready for school, and out the door so they don’t miss the bus (and you’re not late for work) can put preparing breakfast, much less a healthy one, at the bottom of the morning to-do list.
Luckily, fitting a healthy breakfast into your morning routine isn’t as hard as you may think. Here’s why a healthy breakfast matters for your kids—and some simple plant-based recipes to start the school day off right.
Why do kids need breakfast, anyway?
There are a number of reasons for kids to start the day off with breakfast. Some of the most important include:
To “break the fast”
If you’ve ever wondered why the first meal of the day is called “breakfast”, it’s because we really are breaking a fast when we eat after a night’s sleep. Kids have gone without food for at least 10-12 hours while sleeping, but during that time, they’re still burning calories. This is especially true during REM sleep, which is the deepest sleep cycle. During REM, the body’s glucose metabolism increases, burning more calories. Eating a healthy breakfast refuels the body after going without food for so long.
Maintain a healthy weight
A healthy breakfast jumpstarts the metabolism, which is the process that converts food to energy. It’s also what burns calories, one of the reasons studies show that eating breakfast can help maintain a healthy weight. Eating breakfast also helps stave off hunger, which can prevent overeating later.
Better school performance
Studies have shown consistently that eating a balanced breakfast can improve a child’s performance in school. This is especially true for concentration, attention, and memory—all crucial for learning. (Kids who are hungry have a hard time paying attention to anything other than their grumbling tummies.)
You may be thinking that the last thing your child needs is more energy, but the idea is to prevent the “sugar crash” that causes spikes in energy levels and then the inevitable fatigue and crankiness that results. Healthy foods and protein can help stabilize blood sugar levels and prevent spikes in blood sugar.
A healthy, balanced breakfast is an important way for children to get the nutrients they need to grow and develop properly, including calcium, fiber, and vitamins and minerals.
Breaking down breakfast—what’s healthy and what’s not
Yes, breakfast is important, but there’s a caveat that comes with that—in order to get the health benefits from breakfast, it has to be a healthy breakfast.
Cold cereal tops the list of the most common breakfast foods in America. That’s not really a surprise, given that it’s quick, easy, and to be honest, pretty tasty. But a bowl of cereal isn’t exactly the breakfast of champions. Here’s why:
- It’s loaded with sugar. We’re not talking naturally occurring sugar, like you’d find in fruit. We’re talking added sugar. A bowl (because rarely does anyone measure out 1 single serving cup) of cereal has, on average, almost 20 grams of sugar per serving. As mentioned before, added sugar can cause spikes in energy, followed by a sugar crash. It’s a recipe for disaster for a kid in school. Too much sugar in the diet is also associated with a number of health risks, including diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
- Refined grains top the ingredient list. The process of refining grains removes the bran and germ, which also happen to be the healthiest parts of the grain. Refined grains lack the fiber, iron, and vitamins of whole grains, making them an inferior option.
- There’s little protein. Unless you’re adding dairy milk (which isn’t always likely, given that it’s one of the most common allergies), breakfast cereals aren’t an adequate source of protein. A lack of protein, especially when paired with sugar, is another contributor to that dreaded blood sugar spike.
- It’s highly processed. Whole foods are always best. Processing (such as the process of refining grains) strips foods of their important nutrients, which then need to be added back in.
- Long lists of artificial ingredients, preservatives, flavors, and colors. Have you ever looked at the ingredients panel on a box of cereal? Chances are good that the long words most people can’t even pronounce are artificial ingredients, flavors, and colors that manufacturers add to make them appealing to children. Synthetic dyes (like Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6) are particularly bad for kids, and some research has shown that it may contribute to allergies, hyperactivity, learning impairment, and aggressiveness in children.
A real breakfast of champions
Keep in mind, the idea of bringing this up isn’t to breakfast-shame parents—we’ve all sent our kids (or ourselves!) off to school with a quick bowl of cereal, pastry, or other sugary convenience food.
Now that we know the importance of a healthy breakfast for kids who are growing and learning, that brings us to the next question—what does a healthy breakfast look like?
Balanced and whole
For starters, it’s balanced. A balanced meal contains a little bit of everything:
- Protein, to balance out the carbs and sugar
- Carbohydrates and sugar, like those found in fruits and veggies, whole grains, and nuts
- Healthy fats
- Dairy milk or other source of calcium (dark leafy greens, beans/legumes, fortified juice or plant milks)
Whole food sources are also always preferred over their processed, ready-to-eat counterparts.
Rich in protein
We know that protein benefits nearly all body systems. And growing kids need it even more so than adults. It’s crucial for proper growth, building and repairing tissues, organs and muscles, and necessary for proper brain development. It also slows down the absorption of sugar, which keeps blood sugar stabilized.
Another benefit of protein for kids is an increase in satiety. This will help them stay fuller longer in between meals. Again, this is important for attention spans (and keeping “hanger” at bay!)
How much protein do kids need? The daily RDA (recommended dietary allowance) of protein depends on your child’s age. But keep in mind, unless your child is an athlete, you don’t need to stress out about numbers. A good rule of thumb is to make sure there is a rich source of protein in every meal, especially breakfast.
Now you know what a healthy breakfast consists of—and why it’s so important. If you’re worried that making healthy breakfasts for the kids means getting up at the crack of dawn, don’t worry. Take a look at these simple, plant-based, dietitian-approved healthy breakfast recipes and ideas you can fit into your busy schedule. You know your kid’s appetite best, so if you need to combine a few of these options or double the serving for a bigger meal, that works too!
1. Yogurt and Fruit Parfait
- 1 cup of your choice yogurt (add 1-2 tablespoons our plant protein powders into the yogurt if using a vegan yogurt with <1g protein per serving)
- 1/4 cup of your choice granola (or handful of nuts)
- 1/2-1 cup chopped fruit or berries of choice
- other optional toppings: hemp seeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, cinnamon, etc.
Spoon yogurt into a small bowl and top with granola and fruit of choice. Quick and simple!
2. Oatmeal or Overnight Oats*
- 1/2 cup plain rolled oats (can use quick cooking oats but texture will be mushier)
- 1/2-1 cup your choice milk or water
- 1-2 tbsp. plant protein powder (if using water or low protein plant milk)
- 1/2-3/4 cup chopped fruit or berries
- Optional: sprinkle of cinnamon, brown sugar or drizzle of honey or maple syrup
- Other optional toppings: hemp seeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, cinnamon, etc.
Cook oats in a small saucepan using the liquid of choice (note that using smaller amount of liquid will yield drier oatmeal and more liquid will yield runnier oatmeal). Stir in protein powder if needed. Serve in a small bowl and top with fruit, ground spices and sweetener of choice
*For overnight oats (no cooking required!), place uncooked oats and all other ingredients (except berries) into a glass jar or small container with lid and store in the fridge overnight. When ready to eat, top with fresh fruit and enjoy!
3. Basic Fruit n Veggie Smoothie
- 1/2 frozen banana
- 1/2 cup frozen berries or other chopped fruit of choice
- 1 cup your choice milk, juice or water (can substitute with yogurt)
- 1-2 tbsp. plant protein powder (if using liquid or yogurt that is low in protein)
- handful of leafy greens like kale or spinach (great way to sneak veggies in!)
- ice cubes (optional)
Place all ingredients into a high-speed blender and blend until smooth. Add more liquid or ice as needed until you reach a desired consistency
4. Avo Toast with (or without) Eggs
- 1 slice of your choice multigrain, sprouted grain, or multi-grain/seed bread (whole grains and seeds are more nutritious and provide healthy fiber)
- 1/2 hass avocado, ripe
- handful of leafy greens
- optional: 1 egg, cooked your way (or substitute with bean dip/puree for vegan option)
- optional seasonings: pepper, sesame seeds, ground garlic, 1-2 tbsp. shredded cheese (or vegan cheez)
- side item: 1 small fruit or 1 cup chopped fruit/berries
You know your kid’s appetite best and you can certainly double this recipe for two toasts instead of one. Toast the slice of bread, slice the avo thinly so as to make it easy to lay on the toast or you can also mash/spread it on. Place greens on top of the avo and the egg on top of that. Finally top with your choice seasoning.
5. PB & J (or Nut-free B & J)
- 1-2 slices of your choice multigrain, sprouted grain, or multi-grain/seed bread (whole grains and seeds are more nutritious and provide healthy fiber)
- 2 tbsp peanut butter OR your choice nut/nut-free butter (for those with food allergies)
- 1/2 a banana, sliced or other sliced fresh fruit (if your kids are used to jam, try 1 tbsp. jam with fresh fruit over it)
- Other optional toppings: drizzle of honey, maple syrup, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, sprinkle of cinnamon, etc.
- side item: glass of your choice milk or juice
If you do find yourself with extra time in the kitchen, check out our Kid-friendly recipe section for more ideas on healthy breakfast items, healthy muffins, healthy snacks and more!
Written By: Jill Overmyer
Recipes and Editing By: Scarlett Full, in-house Registered Dietitian