I see it every day: The students I teach in the morning are livelier, more attentive and harder working than the ones I see after lunch.
In the afternoons, a few students actually fall asleep in class, and many more sit in an unproductive daze.
How can this be? Are my afternoon students less intelligent? Poorly disciplined? Do my lesson plans somehow lose their zing from morning to afternoon?
Not likely. I’m convinced that the biggest problem is my students’ diet. Too many skip breakfast, and then eat lunch and snacks during the day, leaving them sluggish, drowsy and unable to focus.
This “afternoon zombie” problem is not confined to my classroom. Educators throughout the country have complained about it, and now the California Department of Education and Department of Health Services are trying to do something about it.
The two agencies have launched a “5-a-Day Campaign” aimed at encouraging children to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day, and to reduce their intake of high-fat foods.
Acting on this simple idea, however, may prove a tougher order for school-age children, for many of whom a typical breakfast consists of doughnuts and Coke, and whose preferred lunch is cheeseburgers, french fries and more Coke.
The campaign is especially aimed at preteens in the hope that if they are taught good eating habits early, they’ll keep them up for a lifetime. The end goal is to help the kids achieve lower risks of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and some kinds of cancer.
Luckily, there are some fast and easy ways to work more fruits and vegetables into your child’s diet.
First, it’s helpful to get an idea of what, exactly, a “serving” of a fruit or vegetable is. According to the Department of Health Services, it means one-half cup of fruit or a medium-sized piece, a half-cup of raw or cooked vegetables, a quarter-cup of dried fruit, a cup of raw greens, or about six ounces of pure fruit juice.
Some of these servings may prove easier to introduce to your child than others. For example, a cup of leafy greens may not be as alluring as just a quarter-cup of tangy dried apricots.
Next, ask your kids what their favorite fruits and vegetables are. This eliminates guesswork and wasted spending at the supermarket.
If your child eats lunch in the school cafeteria, find out which fruits and vegetables are generally on the menu, so that your child will know to look for them. (Bear in mind, though, that it is typically less expensive if he or she brings them from home.)
Then have the child help you plan his or her consumption of fruits and vegetables for the week. For example, what kinds would he or she like for breakfast? Which ones can be easily taken to school? Which are best at dinner time?
Don’t overlook the importance of breakfast. For a child in school, it’s the most important meal of the day. Make sure your child gets a low-fat breakfast that includes a fruit or vegetable. Time is short in the morning, so having something that can be eaten or drunk on the way to school is helpful. Here are a couple of options: pre-cut wedges of orange or grapefruit; a shake made of fruit, milk and yogurt, or a bottle of fruit juice.
Even with a good breakfast, many kids (and teachers like me) start to lose steam right around mid-morning, so some schools allot time for a “nutrition break.” Even if your child’s school does not, he or she can still get a brain-boost between classes by eating fruit and vegetable snacks that fit easily into backpacks and even jacket pockets.
For example, try carrot or celery sticks, dried fruit, juice, and slices or sections of any favored fruit.
For more information about the state’s 5-a-Day Campaign--and some quick and easy serving ideas--write to the California Children’s 5-a-Day Campaign, California Department of Health Services, 601 North 7th St., Sacramento, CA 95814.
Of course, eating more fruits and vegetables won’t make children smarter, but it can give them the energy needed to make the most of the smarts they already have.