Breakfast can be a nightmare for parents. Bethesda, Md., mom Amy Corbett Storch's three sons were waking up ravenous and cranky, and were consuming too many processed foods in the rush to get ready for school. Elaine Maag of Arlington, Va., was spending her mornings arguing with her picky son about what he would eat. Alison Pardi's three kids start their day with chocolate brownie-flavored Kids ZBars, but the Woodbridge, Va., mother knows her 5-year-old will need to eat something more healthful, and with more protein, when he starts kindergarten next month.
It's become a cliche, but it's true: Breakfast matters. Research shows that children who eat a well- balanced morning meal do better academically, are better able to focus and are less likely to be obese.
"Breakfast sets our kids up for success," said Sam Kass, an assistant chef at the White House and executive director of Let's Move!, the first lady's campaign to end childhood obesity. "A child who goes to school having not eaten at all or having had a bag of chips or soda for breakfast is not going to have the fuel or nourishment they need to be successful."
It's so crucial, Kass said, that it's a requirement for the Obama family: Everyone has to eat before they leave the house in the morning.
But if it's such an important meal, why are so many of us sending our children to school fueled by sugary cereals, snack bars and frozen waffles drenched in syrup?
Mornings are often chaotic, with everyone rushing to get out the door. Picky eaters demanding frosted cereals battle parents who are trying to start their kids' day with more nutritious choices. And sometimes, children just aren't hungry when they wake up.
Some experts agree that breakfast should include protein and some healthful carbohydrates, and children should consume between 300 and 600 calories in the morning, depending on their age. But how to turn the nightmare into a dream that resembles My Plate, the government's recommendations for what we should be eating? Here are some suggestions on how to regain control of the morning meal.
1. Relax. Parents shouldn't put too much pressure on themselves to have their children sit down every morning to eat eggs and homemade oatmeal. Breakfast doesn't have to mean breakfast food, and if your kids have to eat on the go occasionally, it's okay, said Angela Lemond, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
" The food police are not going to come and arrest you if you have leftovers or a sandwich for breakfast," Lemond said. "You just need to have adequate nutrients, something more than just a snack."
2. Timing matters. Lemond said mornings go more smoothly in her house when she is showered and finished getting ready for work before her children, ages 9 and 6, get up for breakfast.
Storch, however, sets an alarm clock for her two older children to wake up about half an hour before she does. That gives them time to play or just relax, and puts them in a better mood when they come to the table. The family starts preparing breakfast around 7:30.
Storch has a large clock in the kitchen so Noah, 7, and Ezra, 4, will know how much time they have to finish eating. Noah has to be done and ready for the bus by 8:15; Ezra knows he leaves for preschool at 8:30. These little tweaks to their routine have helped transform what had been a stressful time for the family.
3. Plan ahead. Hard-cook a dozen eggs over the weekend and have them ready to peel and go during the week, Lemond suggested. Oatmeal, which you can toss in the crockpot and cook overnight, also can be reheated quickly with a little milk later in the week, she added.
'My husband gets up super early, so I'm pretty much single parenting in the mornings," Lemond said. "I try to do a lot of things the night before."
Storch makes an extra-large batch of whole-wheat pancakes on the weekends, then freezes them and reheats them in the toaster during the week.
Planning, whether it's preparing enough oatmeal on a Sunday night to last for a few days or cutting up fruit in the evening to serve with yogurt the next morning, can make the mornings easier, Kass said.