If you have or care for children, you probably want to make sure they’re well nourished so they can live their healthiest life.
Proper nutrition is important for all aspects of health, including the growth and functioning of the brain.
Rapid brain growth occurs during a child’s first couple years of life. In fact, your child’s brain reaches 80% of its adult weight by the time they reach age 2 (
Your child’s brain continues to develop through adolescence, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain known as the “personality center.” This is the area of the brain associated with planning, memory, decision making, and other executive functions (
All nutrients are important for proper brain function. However, studies have shown specific nutrients and foods support brain development and benefit cognitive function throughout childhood and adolescence (
This article covers 9 brain foods for kids and gives you tips on how to incorporate them into kid-friendly meals and snacks.
Eggs are one of the most nutritious foods you can eat. Fortunately, they’re also a favorite among kids. Eggs are loaded with nutrients that are critical for brain development and cognitive function, including choline, vitamin B12, protein, and selenium (
Choline is a nutrient that’s especially important for brain development.
In fact, a 2020 review of 54 studies suggested that adding choline to a child’s diet during the first 1,000 days of life could support brain development, protect against nerve cell damage, and improve cognitive functioning (
Additionally, research suggests that dietary patterns that contain eggs and other healthy foods, such as legumes and fruit, are associated with higher IQ scores compared with dietary patterns high in sugary foods like cookies and candy (
Two whole eggs provide 294 grams of choline, which covers 100% of choline needs for children ages 1–8 and over 75% of needs for children and teens ages 9–13 (
Berries are packed with beneficial plant compounds called anthocyanins.
Scientists have found anthocyanins may benefit brain health in a variety of ways.
They may increase blood flow to the brain, provide anti-inflammatory effects, and promote the production of new nerve cells and the expression of certain proteins. This includes brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is involved in learning and memory (13).
Results from a number of studies indicate that berry intake positively affects cognitive function in children.
For example, a study in 14 children ages 7–10 found that those who consumed 200 grams of a blueberry drink high in flavonoids performed significantly better on a word recall test than children who drank a control beverage (
What’s more, research has associated a low intake of berries, along with other fruits and vegetables, with poorer cognitive function in kids ages 6–8 (
High berry intake was also linked to better academic performance in a study that included 2,432 adolescent boys and girls (
Seafood is an excellent source of many nutrients that are particularly important for brain function, including omega-3 fats, iodine, and zinc.
For example, the body needs zinc for nerve cell production and development, while omega-3 fats are necessary for normal brain function. The body needs iodine to produce thyroid hormones, which play an important role in brain development (
Many studies have associated seafood consumption with better cognitive function in children and adolescents. In fact, studies have linked eating fish with higher IQ scores and improved school performance in kids (17,
What’s more, low blood levels of omega-3 fats may negatively affect cognitive function in children (
However, researchers have suggested that consuming too much fish may negatively affect cognitive function because of pollutants, such as mercury, that are concentrated in some types of seafood (
For this reason, it’s a good idea to offer your child seafood that’s low in mercury, including clams, shrimp, salmon, trout, and herring (
Getting your child to eat leafy greens may be challenging, but research suggests these nutritious vegetables are important for kids’ brain health.
Green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, and lettuce contain brain-protecting compounds, including folate, flavonoids, carotenoids, and vitamins E and K1 (
One study showed that children who had adequate folate intake had better cognitive scores than children with inadequate folate intake (
Plus, research suggests that a diet high in carotenoid-rich foods, such as leafy greens, may boost cognitive function in children.
Carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin are concentrated in leafy greens. After you eat these, they accumulate in a part of your eye called the retina. Macular pigment optical density (MPOD) is a measurement of the quantity of these pigments in the eye.
Some studies have shown that MPOD is positively linked to cognitive functioning in children (
Cocoa and cocoa products, such as cacao nibs, are some of the most concentrated food sources of flavonoid antioxidants, including catechin and epicatechin (
These compounds have anti-inflammatory and brain-protective properties, and studies have shown they may benefit brain health (
Cocoa flavonoids increase blood flow to the brain and improve visual processing. Research has shown they improve performance on certain cognitive tasks in adults (
What’s more, consuming cocoa may improve cognitive performance in younger people.
One review of 11 studies found that both short- and long-term cocoa intake benefited cognitive performance in children and young adults (
The researchers suggested that cocoa consumption may lead to better cognitive performance in tasks related to verbal learning and memory. However, scientists need to do more research on this (
Oranges are a popular citrus fruit and kid favorite thanks to their sweet taste. Adding oranges to your child’s diet may improve their overall health, including their cognitive health.
Oranges are rich in flavonoids, including hesperidin and narirutin. In fact, orange juice is one of the most commonly consumed sources of flavonoids (
Studies have suggested that eating flavonoid-rich foods and beverages like oranges and orange juice helps increase nerve activity and blood flow to the brain, which may boost cognitive function (
Oranges are also packed with vitamin C, a nutrient that’s essential to brain health. Vitamin C is necessary for proper brain development, neurotransmitter production, and more (
Studies in adults suggest that having optimal blood levels of vitamin C is associated with better performance on tasks involving focus, working memory, attention, recall, decision speed, and recognition, compared with having vitamin C deficiency (
Offering your child unsweetened yogurt for breakfast or a protein-packed snack is an excellent way to support their brain health.
Dairy products like yogurt are a good source of iodine, a nutrient the body needs for brain development and cognitive function.
Studies show that children who don’t consume enough iodine are more likely to have cognitive impairment than children with iodine-sufficient diets (
It’s important to note that iodine deficiency is more common in pregnant women and children, especially in impoverished areas (
In addition to being a good source of iodine, yogurt is loaded with many other nutrients that are important for brain development and function, including protein, zinc, B12, and selenium (
Additionally, studies have shown that having breakfast is important for children’s brain function. Regular meals that provide continuous energy are more important for children than adults because children’s brains have a higher demand for glucose (
This means that children need to refuel in the morning with a balanced breakfast to support energy levels and brain function (
Therefore, preparing a nutrient-dense breakfast that contains brain-benefiting foods is an excellent way to support your child’s brain health. Consider serving them unsweetened yogurt topped with berries, homemade granola, cacao nibs, and pumpkin seeds.
Iron deficiency is common around the world and particularly common in children. Low iron status can negatively affect cognitive development and academic performance in children (
Iron deficiency has also been associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (
Children under the age of 7 are considered most at risk of developing iron deficiency (
To help prevent iron deficiency, make sure your child’s diet contains iron-rich foods. These include red meat, poultry, seafood, beans, and spinach.
Keep in mind that the body absorbs heme iron, which is found in animal foods, better than non-heme iron, which is found in plant-based foods.
Your child’s diet should ideally contain a mix of both heme and non-heme iron sources. Adding sources of vitamin C to non-heme iron-rich foods can help boost absorption. For example, you could add lemon juice to a spinach salad (
Nuts and seeds are highly nutritious and contain high concentrations of many nutrients linked to improved cognitive function. These include vitamin E, zinc, folate, iron, and protein (
Studies have also shown that eating nuts can help improve children’s diet quality and boost their intake of essential nutrients, such as healthy fats, protein, and fiber. Diet quality is associated with better academic performance and cognitive function (
A study in 317 children found that eating nuts was related to improvements in a test called the symbol digit modality test (SDMT). The SDMT involves matching numbers with geometric figures in a 90-second period. Scientists use this test to measure brain function (
Studies have found that nut consumption is also associated with improvements in certain aspects of cognitive performance in college-aged students (
Plus, nuts, seeds, and nut and seed butters are versatile, kid-friendly foods that can help boost the nutrient quality of meals and snacks.
Most parents are aware of foods that are beneficial for their child’s overall health, yet many struggle with getting their child to try nutritious foods.
Children can be picky and may be turned off by particular colors, textures, and flavors.
Parents and caretakers should know that research shows repeated exposure to foods like fruits and vegetables may encourage your child’s acceptance of these foods and increase the chances of your child liking these foods later in life (
Here are a few ways to incorporate brain-boosting healthy foods into your child’s diet.
- Berry, nut butter, and yogurt parfait. Layer unsweetened full or reduced fat yogurt with fresh berries, almond or peanut butter, and chopped nuts. Sprinkle on some dark chocolate chips to add interest and an extra dose of antioxidants.
- Green monster smoothie. Adding greens to fruit smoothies is an excellent way to increase your kid’s vegetable intake. Try this recipe, which combines multiple brain-benefiting ingredients, including spinach, orange, strawberries, and yogurt.
- Salmon salad sandwich. Boost your child’s seafood intake by offering them this yummy salmon salad sandwich. Serve it with your kid’s favorite fruits and veggies for a balanced meal.
- Egg muffins. Starting your child’s day with a nutrient-dense breakfast like these egg and veggie muffins can help give them the energy they need. Involve your child in cooking by having them choose the ingredients they’d like in their egg muffins.
- Kid-friendly chicken meatballs. These chicken meatballs are packed with veggies and make a delicious, protein-packed option for kids. Serve with marinara dipping sauce for an extra dose of brain-protective compounds like lycopene (46).
It’s important to offer your child a variety of nutritious foods to ensure their diet is balanced and they’re consuming optimal amounts of both macro and micronutrients.
If you’re concerned your child is not getting enough nutrients through their diet, talk with your child’s pediatrician. They can provide advice and help you decide whether your child needs to take supplements.
A healthy, balanced diet is critical for your child’s overall health, including their brain health.
Studies have shown that certain nutrients and foods, including seafood, eggs, berries, and others on this list, are particularly important for brain function and cognitive performance.
Incorporating the foods listed above into your child’s diet will help provide the nutrients they need for their brain to develop and function at its best.