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My child is a picky eater and struggling in school. Could the two be related?

Dear Ask a Montessorian, my child is a picky eater and struggling in school.  Could the two be related? I’m afraid that my child is a ”carb junkie.” Breakfast has to be a certain cereal or pancakes. She even sneaks crackers, chips, and cookies into her room.  Her teacher tells me she is a very picky eater at school and only eats the snacks I send. Her teacher has said that she is struggling in the classroom, unable to complete activities, hyper-talkative, and distracts other kids.  I wonder if her picky diet is playing a role in this?

–Aaron T.

Aaron, first of all, you are not alone. Many children eat way too many simple carbohydrates! They taste good and provide a short-lived energy boost.  However, they take the place of vital macronutrients needed for sustained mental and physical energy that your daughter needs. It is quite possible that your daughter’s diet is a bit out of balance.  The quick drop in energy and blood sugar levels throughout the day can have a negative impact on focus, learning, and behavior.

We need carbohydrates because they fuel the energy centers of the cell which drives every function of the human body and brain. Simple carbohydrates which include cookies, crackers and pasta are not bad as an addition to, but not a replacement for, a balanced diet.

It is important to build the nutritional control of error into the child’s school day and that includes “complexing” up the carbs. A complex carbohydrate with the germ and bran intact needs to be broken down in the small intestines to absorb the nutrients. This provides sustained released fuel for the “think tank.”

A few examples:

1)   Add quinoa to white rice

2)   Nut and seed butters on sprouted grain breads (Little Big Bread – children’s favorite)

3)   Steel cut oatmeal

4)  Low sugar granola (< 5 gms per ½ cup) in trail mixes

Start a food journal for or with your daughter.  When you’re able, record observations of her energy level, focus and behavior as well.  As you adjust her diet over time, you will be able to see new patterns emerge. Communicate with her teacher so that he or she can let you know what improvements your daughter is making in the classroom.  Nutritional education for both parents and educators is integral to this process. Many times snacks served at school can throw off a child’s delicate metabolism if they have not eaten a balanced breakfast or have been chronically deficient in important ‘brain essentials.’ By following best practices, educators, parents and school communities can integrate meal and snack ideas to increase nutrient specific foods conducive to learning, behavior, and emotional well-being.

Next, work with your daughter’s pediatrician toward balancing the three macronutrients that our bodies need most: fats, proteins and complex carbohydrates. When you hit your daughter’s daily macronutrient trifecta, her seemingly insatiable cravings for simple carbohydrates are likely to diminish.

For added inspiration, refer to The Montessori Method.  You may know that Dr. Maria Montessori included recipes in Chapter 8, ‘Reflection, The Child’s Diet.’  In this chapter, Dr. Montessori emphasized that sugar should be treated like a condiment. Sugars are listed after the macronutrients in her meatballs, croquettes, and egg dishes. How times have changed!  Reducing sugar and simple carbohydrates may seem difficult at first, but with the right information, you will see that your daughter can enjoy a variety of nutritious foods without cravings for nutrient-deplete foods.

Also, as you evaluate the types of fats that your daughter is eating, consider the butter versus margarine debate.  Dr. Montessori was a pioneer in nutrients in brain development and function. She wrote, “Instead of removing grease from the broth, it is better to add butter to it, or in the case of the poor, a spoonful of olive oil, but substitutes for butter such as margarine should never be used.”   Margarine, a man-made fat, is deleterious to development. We know today that many margarine spreads (and a myriad of foods) contain hydrogenated oils or trans fats, which are a powerful deterrent to visual and neurological development and function. Most importantly, they lack high vitamin cholesterol (found in free-range animals and by-products), an essential nutrient to build myelin, the fatty sheath that activates the action potential between two neurons.

Current nutritional research is robust with data that confirms Dr. Montessori’s recommendations and concurrently expanded to include new fields of investigation, as our food is less nourishing, chemically enhanced, and wreaking metabolic havoc in the brains and bodies of many children.  As mentioned, incorporating the latest cutting-edge research in tandem with Dr. Montessori’s sage nutritional advice is important for both parents and educators.  I have created a new CGMS course for participants to learn about nutrients in brain development and ongoing physical and mental health. This course emphasizes and expands Maria Montessori’s directive that we develop in ourselves ‘the habit of specializing in children’s food.’  

–Jan Katzen, AMI, CFP, CN

Jan Katzen AMI, CFP, CN is a former pre-primary Montessori educator. She is now a nutritional therapist working with developmental pediatricians in Phoenix, Arizona. Jan is a certified nutritional educator and instructs Nutrition for Learning, Health and Well-Being, a 4 week professional development course offered by CGMS. She is also the nutritional education video presenter in the CGMS Infant/toddler certification course.

To learn more about Jan, please visit her website  www.nutritionforlearning.com