Breakfast is an important part of any child’s diet, and as one of the three main meals a day it should provide between 20-35% of nutrient intake. But we know that many children miss out on breakfast. A 2012 study showed that 14% of children surveyed did not eat breakfast. This equates to 1 in 7, and a third of these children reported not eating anything until lunch time.

Children who miss out on breakfast are less likely to be able to make up the nutrients during the rest of the day. For example:

  • Children who skip breakfast are less likely to meet recommendations for the 5 a day fruit and vegetable intake
  • An Australian study showed those who did not eat breakfast cereal were much more likely to have inadequate nutrient intakes, especially of B vitamins, calcium, magnesium and iron.

Missing one meal a day makes it much harder for a child to meet all the required nutrient intake recommendations, which include important targets for vitamins, minerals as well as macronutrients like protein and fats. Meeting nutrient levels supports a child’s rapid growth and development.

Missing breakfast could be due to a range of different factors, including food insecurity, mental health issues in the home, children sleeping in due to inadequate sleep, or not feeling hungry in the morning. 

Impact of breakfast on children’s weight

Some studies show that children who eat breakfast are less likely to be overweight or obese. This could be down to having more energy to exercise, or being less likely to snack later in the day. Studies have found that:

  • Skipping breakfast is associated with a higher BMI in children
  • The risk of obesity in children and adolescents who skipped breakfast was 43% greater than those who ate breakfast regularly

A healthy breakfast will be low in sugars and include fibre and protein, to keep children full until their next meal. Children who eat breakfast are less likely to snack later in the day. Snacking is more associated with high energy, unhealthy foods such as biscuits, crisps, confectionary or pastries, which may affect a child’s weight if this pattern of eating continues long term.

Children need to eat breakfast

Breaking our overnight fast is a good way to give us more energy to cope with whatever the day holds.

If children don’t eat breakfast they may struggle with concentration, anxiety or managing their emotions.

  • Anxiety - We know that when our blood sugar drops we release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Being hungry is a physiological stress for the body because the brain needs to know there is a ready supply of glucose. This physical stress puts us into a state of high alert and may start, or exacerbate, a child feeling anxious or worried.
  • Concentration – A child may find it hard to concentrate on lessons at school when their tummy is empty. When their brain is lacking in glucose they may become distracted, tired and lethargic, impacting on their learning.
  • Anger - For some people feeling hungry leads to irritability. This is often referred to as ‘hangry’, a mix of hungry and angry. Children who start the day feeling hungry could experience feelings of rage, irritability or stress, and may find it hard to meet school behaviour expectations. Feeling hungry could also lead to outbursts, aggressive social interactions, or erratic behaviour.
  • Negativity - Increased feelings of low mood negativity can stem from feeling hungry. Some studies show that when we’re hungry we will judge negative situations and people more harshly than if we are not hungry. This could lead to children putting a negative slant on their social situations and friendships, their ability to learn and feelings of achievement.

Why breakfast means Fuel for Success

Starting the day with a healthy breakfast will help children feel more resilient, better able to tackle their day, and prepare them to succeed in and out of the classroom.

After 8-12 hours of sleep children need a fresh supply of nutrients to help them grow, learn and play. Eating breakfast is literally breaking their overnight fast, which may be a longer fast than an adult’s due to longer sleep duration. A healthy breakfast of fibre, protein and nutrients like calcium, B vitamins and iron will support a healthy active child. 

  • Protein – When we eat foods like meat, fish, nuts, seeds, eggs, tofu or beans our digestion breaks the food into amino acids. These important components of protein support building muscles and bones, as well as production of hormones and neurotransmitters. Certain amino acids are particularly important for cognitive function and when they are low have been shown to impact learning and mood. Tryptophan helps to make serotonin, a hormone involved in feeling well, and Tyrosine is linked to cognitive performance. When we don’t have enough of these important amino acids then energy, our mood can suffer.
  • Carbohydrates – When we eat bread, oats, fruit, starchy vegetables or potatoes we turn these carbohydrates into glucose, which our brain cells use for fuel. Our brain cells don’t store energy, and so must rely on regular food intake. The brain takes up only 2% of our body weight, but it uses 20% of glucose-derived energy, so it’s vital we keep the brain fuelled. Whole grains also include B vitamins which support a healthy nervous system. When we eat wholegrain higher fibre carbohydrates they provide a slower and more sustained energy source, and consequently result in cognitive enhancement compared to low-fibre foods.

Studies have shown children are better able to concentrate when they eat breakfast.

For a healthy breakfast, include wholegrain breads, porridge or low sugar cereals, fresh fruit and vegetables. Pair the carbohydrates with a source of protein like eggs, yoghurt, meat or fish.

Avoid cereals with high sugar, low fibre content as these tend to be low in essential nutrients, and may spike blood sugar imbalances throughout the day.

What if my child doesn’t want breakfast?

If your child isn’t hungry first thing in the morning, some possible approaches to help encourage them to eat breakfast include:

  • Allow sufficient time after waking before giving them breakfast. Our sleep hormone, melatonin, can suppress appetite, so help children to wake up first with a drink and some gentle movement.
  • Avoid late night snacking, and allow enough time between finishing eating and your child’s bedtime, so their digestion can rest overnight.
  • Try to eat breakfast together in the morning. It’s less likely your child will eat breakfast if you don’t role model eating a healthy meal as well.

Without the energy from breakfast we’d all struggle to achieve our daily successes. It’s the same for children who need Fuel For Success, from learning to spell, swimming their first length or making friends with their classmates.

Help provide breakfasts for hungry schoolchildren in the UK, so they have the nutrients and fuel they need to succeed in and out of the classroom.

Donate to provide Fuel for Success