Exam season

Feed the brain

The best foods to boost your kids' concentration and memory

With examination season rolling around, you may be wondering what you should feed your kids to help them perform their best.

Are there foods to improve their concentration and memory so they can study better?

Good brain health for children involves several contributing factors, says principal dietitian Wong Yuefen from National Healthcare Group Polyclinics.

For a start, parents can practise good eating habits with them.

Do not start the day on an empty stomach. Research has shown that a healthy breakfast can boost brain power and attention.

Also, be sure to have regular meals and snacks to keep blood sugar levels stable and provide the brain with fuel to focus.

Children should drink six to eight glasses of water a day, depending on their age, gender and weight. They may need more if they are very active.

Studies have found improved performance and in some aspects of cognition in kids after they were given water to drink, says Ms Wong.

You would also want to boost their immune system, with the recent rise in Covid-19 infections.

To keep them healthy, it is important that their diets are rich in fruit and vegetables, and they get regular exercise and sufficient sleep.

Kids aged between seven and 13 should have at least nine hours of sleep, those from 14 to 17 need at least eight hours and 18-year-olds at least seven hours, according to the Singapore Integrated 24-Hour Activity Guidelines for Children and Adolescents.

Ms Wong, who has a 10-year-old son, adds that healthy eating does not mean that kids have to cut out indulgences completely.

"Children will feel more stressed during exam season, so it is perfectly normal to balance out with the occasional treats," she says.

She allows her son to choose what he wants to eat in moderation and also encourages him to snack on foods that are beneficial for the brain. These normally consist of nuts, yogurt, fruit (especially berries) and whole-grain biscuits or cereal.

Ms Wong also recommends these foods to help kids prepare for exams.

OILY FISH

Salmon, mackerel (tenggiri and kembong), herring, yellow tailed shad (ikan kuning), halibut, sardines, tuna and trout are among the fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).

Essential fatty acids are not made by the body and need to be obtained from food sources for healthy brain growth and function.

Kid-friendly meal ideas: Serve sardines or tuna in sandwiches. You can also make fish patties, adding cubed carrots or brown mushrooms.

LEAN AND SKINLESS MEAT

This provides iron, which helps to form haemoglobin in red blood cells. The cells deliver oxygen to important organs in the body, including the brain. Low iron levels can affect one's concentration and attentiveness.

Kid-friendly meal ideas: Use minced lean pork or beef to make Bolognese sauce or burger patties. Or coat chunks of lean and skinless chicken with crushed cornflakes to make healthy nuggets.

EGGS

Choline, a nutrient found naturally in eggs, is important for normal brain development and nerve function. Studies have shown that choline helps improve memory and mental function.

Kid-friendly meal ideas: Add vegetables to scrambled eggs to make a frittata. You can also combine low-fat yogurt and mashed hard-boiled eggs to make a healthy sandwich filling.

CALCIUM-RICH FOODS

Milk, cheese and yogurt are good sources of calcium. Besides strengthening bones and teeth, calcium also plays an essential role in the brain's neurological functioning.

Other calcium-rich foods include calcium-fortified soya bean milk and bean curd, canned fish, dark green leafy vegetables and unsalted almonds.

Kid-friendly meal ideas: Freeze yogurt blended with fruit to make ice lollies. You can also use milk or yogurt instead of water when making fruit smoothies.

NUTS AND SEEDS

Nuts are high in protein, essential fatty acids, iron and zinc. Walnuts contain omega-3 fatty acids that promote brain health.

Kid-friendly meal ideas: Mix baked and unsalted nuts with dried fruit for a healthy snack. Try blending nuts with healthier oils such as olive oil, fresh herbs and garlic to make a pesto sauce for pasta.

FRUIT AND VEGETABLES

Fruit, especially berries, as well as brightly coloured and dark green leafy vegetables are rich sources of antioxidants.

Berries contain anthocyanins and other flavonoids, which have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties.

Studies have shown that eating a diet rich in antioxidants and flavonoids can help improve memory.

Consuming foods rich in vitamin C such as kiwi and citrus fruit and juices also helps enhance the absorption of the iron in dark green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds.

Kid-friendly meal ideas: Blend fruit and vegetables into a smoothie. Or add vegetables to seasoned brown rice to make rice balls or rolls for your kids to eat on the go.

WHOLE GRAINS

Whole grains are a good source of carbohydrates and dietary fibre, providing a constant supply of glucose for brain function.

Examples of whole grains include wholemeal bread, brown rice, brown rice beehoon, oats, wholemeal pasta and whole-wheat or whole-grain cereal.

Kid-friendly meal ideas: Use wholemeal bread to make a sandwich or open-toast pizza. Also, choose whole-grain cereals and serve them with low-fat milk or yogurt.

  • COLD SOBA WITH TANGY SALMON

  • INGREDIENTS

    • 4 salmon fillets, about 90g each

    • 1 Tbs olive oil

    • Zest and juice of one orange

    • 3 cloves garlic, crushed with skin on

    • Salt to taste

    • Ground black pepper to taste

    • 200g soba

    • 2 Japanese cucumbers, julienned with skin on

    • 1 red capsicum, julienned

    • 1 yellow capsicum, julienned

    • ¼ purple cabbage, julienned

    • 10 cherry tomatoes, halved

    For the dressing:

    • 3 Tbs vinegar, white or black

    • 2 Tbs soya sauce

    • 1 Tbs honey or sugar

    • 2 tsp sesame oil

    • Roasted white sesame seeds as garnish

    METHOD

    1. Place the salmon fillets in a dish. Add the olive oil, orange zest and juice, garlic, salt and pepper. Mix well. Cover the dish in cling wrap and leave to marinate in the fridge for 30 to 60 minutes.

    2. Heat a non-stick pan over medium heat. Pan-fry the salmon for 4 to 5 minutes on each side until cooked. Set aside.

    3. Cook the soba according to instructions on the pack. Place the cooked soba in a big bowl filled with ice water. When chilled, drain the soba and set aside in the fridge.

    4. When it is time to serve, divide the soba into four portions. Place each portion onto a plate. Top with a piece of salmon fillet and vegetables.

    5. For the dressing, combine the ingredients in a small bowl. Drizzle the dressing over the soba and garnish with sesame seeds.

    Serves four.

    Nutritional value a serving (490g):

    Energy: 385kcal

    Carbohydrate: 33g

    Protein: 23g

    Fat: 7.3g

    Saturated fat: 1.5g

    Cholesterol: 93mg

    Dietary fibre: 5g

    Sodium: 1,050mg

    Tips:

    • You can substitute salmon with other sources of protein such as chicken or plant-based alternatives like tau kwa, tofu and chickpeas.

    • You may swop the vegetables with other varieties.

    • Choose soya sauce with reduced salt to cut the sodium.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2021, with the headline 'Feed the brain'. Subscribe