After a good night’s sleep, a child’s body has been fasting for 10 to 12 hours, and breaking that fast is important to fuel the body with a nutritious meal.

Breakfast is particularly important for young children to ensure optimal growth and development. The brain uses more energy than any other organ in the body: more than half of an infant’s daily calories, and at least 20 percent of what an older child and teen need.

Brain scans during prolonged periods without food show activity in the midbrain (amygdala), which is the area of the brain that causes anxiety, agitation, irritability and mood swings. After feeding, the frontal cortex lights up and the amygdala activity quiets.

The child is now ready to learn.

Cereals paired with milk are one of the biggest sources of some extremely important nutrients including fiber, folic acid, vitamin C, iron and zinc. However, it’s important to choose breakfast cereals wisely.

• Cereals marketed toward children tend to contain more sugar and sodium and less important nutrients.

• Find a cereal with a fiber content of at least 2 (if not 5) grams per serving.

• Focus on finding cereals that contain no more than 10 to 20 grams of sugar per serving. A 2011 study of children’s breakfast eating behaviors found that children (without the eye-catching boxes) were equally happy with high- or low-sugar cereals. Even when sugar was added to the low-sugar cereals it was less sugar than the high-sugar cereal groups.

• Consider sweetening cereal naturally by adding cut up fruit such as bananas, strawberries or peaches.

• Go for whole grains whenever possible.

Most school districts are offering balanced breakfast options. These menus are published online.

Many children, even picky eaters, are more receptive to eating what’s offered if all their friends eating alongside them are eating the same meal. There are no parental demands, no pressure and usually no other options.

Parents are encouraged to find out what’s being offered to their children. This is also true for what’s being offered in day care. Every state, except Idaho, which doesn’t license child care centers, requires that meals and snacks served in child care meet minimum nutritional standards.

If you wish for more detailed information in your area, you can contact your local child care licensing agency or check out the website for the National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education at http:/nrckids.org.

Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at UTMB Children’s Hospital. This column isn’t intended to replace the advice of your child’s physician.

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