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Power Brain Foods for Standardized Testing in Schools

Students taking a test

Do-nut worry” read the cute little tags attached to the double doughnut hole treat our first graders presented to our fourth graders last year before their big, stressful standardized test.

School counselors have told me that you can palpably feel the atmosphere change in the third and fourth grade wings of our local elementary schools as the state standardized test approaches. Even though it only reflects marginally on the individual child, and teachers try their best to remain easy-going about it, kids still know. They still feel it.

As someone who believes that food is the root cause of many of the health problems plaguing our young generation, both mental and physical, I immediately think to myself, what foods can we provide that will help them reduce stress and have their best focus on testing day?

You may be surprised that doughnut holes are not tops on my list.

Yes, that’s sarcasm. I tend to believe that doughnuts will someday be seen in the mainstream as equivalently evil as cigarettes. There are already some who are trying to get that message across.

I do understand the first grade teachers’ attempt at levity, and there is great psychological value in instilling confidence in our children before a test, as well as encouraging them to find a little humor in the situation.

But to counteract that positive effort with starchy carbs that will shoot a bunch of quick energy to the children’s brains and then crash them doesn’t make any sense to me, nor to teach them that we should rely on junk food as our only way to “celebrate” getting through something difficult. (That sets up negative habits around food in our brains! See Dr. Dina Rose’s fascinating interview for more on food habits.)

Although my family has had a LOT of value out of the “donut worry” joke for a full year now, constantly bringing it up at dinner, I still maintain that there have to be some kind of other puns that don’t have to do with doughnuts.

  • “If you carrot all, you’ll do great!”
  • “Always cucumber to do your best!”
  • Guac on to your blue ribbon best!”
  • “Keep calm and berry on!”
  • “You can pass this test with chEASE!”
  • “You’ll be hummus-ing along in no time!”

Got any others? Pear in the comments, pretty peas!

What ARE the Best Standardized Test Foods?

Best Foods to Eat for Brain Power Before Standardized Tests

In all seriousness, standardized testing time is the perfect time to teach our kids that:

  1. Food is fuel and we need to eat for how we want to feel (and think), and
  2. We don’t need junk food rewards for every event.

I just received our teachers’ request for testing day snacks in the older grades, and they are asking for mints, granola bars, and a piece of fresh fruit for each child on every testing day. I’m pleased to see fresh fruit included, as it is an obvious attempt at healthy eating and a step in the right direction from doughnuts!

The request included a note that other snacks used in the past have included string cheese, Goldfish, and candy, and parents are welcome to send in those as well, along with anything else they can dream up.

Dream with me? I asked some of my very wise medical professional colleagues to suggest best foods for test prep, and we collectively came up with a pretty awesome list!

I’ll start with the nutrients that can make a difference in memory, focus, recall and brain power in general, for my science geek friends out there. Then we’ll get practical with foods you can provide for your child’s class if you get the opportunity to circumvent the donuts and pretzels!!

Brain Boosting Nutrients – What is the best thing to eat before an exam?

In general we know that fat, protein and fiber are necessary to satiate hunger, and primarily if we’re eating just before a test, we want to make sure that snack “counts” by lasting long enough to get through the test!

This means that I want to stay away from empty carbs (white flour, sugar) as much as possible.

Let’s see what else the experts have to say about what nutrients to incorporate to boost kids’ brains!

Basic Building Blocks: Protein, Fat, Omega 3s for Brain Power

avacadoes

Sara Vance, nutritionist and author of The Perfect Metabolism Plan: Restore Your Energy and Reach Your Ideal Weight, reminds us that we want to focus on foods with protein, healthy fat and Omega 3s. Protein and healthy fats will satiate hunger and last long enough to power the brain (which consumes massive amounts of calories as it works hard!) through the entire test.

Dr. Heidi Hanna, director of the American Institute of Stress, confirms this, because carbohydrates can cause a blood sugar spike and crash, which would diminish energy to the brain right in the middle of the test most likely.

The trouble is that stress and anxiety often cause cravings toward sugary or starchy foods, so it’s a battle to intelligently choose the best foods BEFORE being in the stressful situation (and for adults to only provide options that will help the child’s brain). More on stress and testing soon!

Omega 3 fats are particularly suited for brain power because EPA and DHA are abundant in the cell membranes of brain cells, preserving cell membrane health and facilitating communication between brain cells. Source Omega 3s are going to support your child best if they’re a regular part of the diet, in plant-based forms like walnuts, flax and chia seeds as well as wild-caught fish (read our KS nutritionist consultant’s take on how to find a good fish oil supplement HERE).

Choline Helps the Brain Work Better

eggs

Almost all of my experts recommended choline, an essential nutrient that supports cell messaging and is required to make an important neurotransmitter that regulates memory and heartbeat (hello, test needs and anxiety control!). Although some liver and onions would do the trick, nuts and eggs fare better for most kids. ? Choline is also high in other meat, fish, beans, peas, and spinach.

Eggs are one of the best sources of choline, which may not actually improve the brain in the short term but may be positively linked to improved verbal and visual memory. Eggs also provide fat and protein to satiate longer through the day, vaulting them back to being an excellent short term option. Sources: 1, 2, 3

What are Good Supplements for Brain Health?

Sona Lesmeister, a colleague through my stress mastery training, brought up the brain value of B-vitamins, L-theanine, and Quercetin as well as the gut-brain axis and how a healthy microbiome, fueled by a quality probiotic, is vital for brain function:

  • B-vitamins may boost the production of neurotransmitters
  • L-theanine may affect certain chemicals in the brain such as serotonin and dopamine
  • Quercetin has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may reduce risks of neurodegenerative disorders
  • Probiotics: This tip is over time, not just something you can consume before a test.

Iodine and Minerals Support the Brain

Sara Vance also recommended seaweed, which I like munching on but may not be a huge draw for many kids.

Why? Iodine is used by the thyroid gland to make thyroid hormones that control many functions in the body, including growth and development. Seaweed is also high in folic acid, which is important for brain health, and magnesium, which helps reduce stress and protect the body and brain against the negative effects of stress. (Brain HQ)

Boosting Dopamine for Brain Focus and Problem Solving Ability

scoop of oatmeal

Sarah Janette, functional medicine practitioner and anxiety expert for high school and college-aged young ladies, echoes the choline recommendation along with anything that boosts dopamine and blood flow to the brain.

from Sarah:

Choline for memory, dopamine for focus and problem solving and blood flow for brain functioning. Tyrosine and Phenylalanine are the building blocks to Dopamine so they can be an effective supplement(s) as well (food sources are good too). Omega 3s are also key but I don’t think they are effective as a short term “boost” for pre-exam performance but are of course, essential for daily brain functioning. A good supplement with DHA and EPA is recommended.
  • Phenylalanine boosting foods:  eggs, oats and dark chocolate (yes!!!)
  • Choline:  eggs, liver, soy, nuts/seeds (most animal products)

So basically chocolate covered eggs would be a great dish ?

How long before a test should you eat?

Sarah also shared an incredibly important piece of the puzzle for those of us striving to feed schoolkids “healthy testing snacks.” She tells her college students not to eat too much and not just before an exam, because that will cause blood flow to be concentrated in their gut for digestion right when we really want it available for the brain!

This is huge for my situation, because I have volunteered to head up the parent group’s project to provide snacks for all our 3rd/4th graders for all three of their state standardized testing days. I learned that the snacks are actually served DURING the test, in a 5-minute break between sections. When I heard that, all I could think of was this note from Sarah and all the implications of eating in the middle of the test!

Unfortunately, I can’t make systemic changes this year as the teachers are stressed out enough just a few weeks before the test, but I should be able to do more education next fall in preparation for the 2020 exams. I’m already planning about how I can give the teachers brain-boosting ACTIVITY ideas as well as food, such as stress mastery breathing techniques and exercises!

Increase Blood Flow to the Brain for Clarity

a woman exercising

Teachers can help kids get blood flowing to the brain with some simple large body movements (exercise) before a test. Ever notice that you get great ideas after taking a walk or while you’re working out?

Increasing blood flow to the brain is one good reason to exercise before doing thought-heavy activities, PLUS the part of the brain that regulates motion is the same area as cognitive thought and executive function skills like planning, problem-solving, decision-making, memory and creativity. The pre-frontal cortex is also the seat of attention, self-regulation and reward processing (in other words, thinking, “Why should I do my best on this?”). (Sources: 1, 2)

If any teacher wants to “teach to the test,” optimizing the students’ pre-frontal cortex seems like the obvious place to start!!!

Ginkgo Biloba is a supplement Sarah takes herself to increase blood flow to the brain.

How cool would it be if I could help teachers incorporate brain-building techniques all year long, like the ones I wrote about for strengthening the brain to avoid and recover from concussions? And if the parents could be on board with nutrition too, score and double score. ?

That’s what I love to do here at Kitchen Stewardship, making healthy living accessible and inspirational for even the busiest of parents!

Foods to enhance brain power and focus just before a test (that are easy to bring for a whole class):

When I asked my experts what we could bring that is kid-friendly and non-perishable, all agreed that it’s a tall order, but they came up with some great ideas nonetheless! Our school was able to source some of these items in individual servings through the cafeteria ordering system at extremely inexpensive prices compared to grocery stores!!full fat yogurt and berries

To try to avoid possible nut allergies, Sara Vance suggested pumpkin seeds as a source of fat+protein+omega 3s (or watermelon seeds, 10g of protein in a serving!).dark chocolate

Plus studies have shown that dark chocolate helped people perform better on math problemsSource

Of course we want the darkest chocolate possible to avoid the sugar, and adding cacao to a smoothie or homemade treat is a great way to incorporate the benefits without the drawbacks of milk chocolate (also a dairy allergy issue).

Advanced level foods to boost brain power (not so convenient though):

Serve a Brain Food Breakfast on Testing Days

As a parent in your own home, you can do a LOT more for snacks and breakfast (and meals/weeks/a lifetime leading up to standardized testing) to boost your kids’ brain power:

Supplements for brain health

Should I drink coffee before the SAT?

There are supplements that can boost brain power, if that’s something you’re into:

  • Choline supplement (note that I’m not a doctor and I have no idea if these are ok for kids, but I am the type of person who’s not afraid to take random supplements myself and see what happens)
  • 4 Sigmatic Mushroom Coffee and Lions Mane – If you’re going to drink some coffee before a big test (for adults obviously!!), go with 4 Sigmatic, lower in caffeine and with added mushroom power for focus!
  • Beekeepers Naturals B-LXR has Ginkgo Biloba, which increases blood flow to the brain as we mentioned above and improves clarity and focus. Note that this can be pretty powerful, so start with half a bottle and maybe not the first time on the day of a big test. Use the code Katie15 for 15% off! 

Will you consider a power breakfast the morning of the big test?

What to eat before taking the SAT?

My son recently took the PSAT, and he was so grateful that I made him a special brain power smoothie packed with everything I had been learning about!

Green smoothie

I included:

  • Whole milk (or full fat coconut milk for my daughter who is dairy sensitive)
  • Probiotics
  • Kelp powder for iodine
  • Leafy greens for magnesium and more (if your kids don’t tolerate any greens at all, try a kale powder – it’s concentrated so you don’t need much and it won’t change the taste of the smoothie. Use the code KS10 for 10% off!)
  • A frozen banana for sweetness
  • Frozen berries for antioxidants
  • Chia seeds for healthy fats
  • Half an avocado for healthy fats and creaminess
  • Collagen for protein (use the code KS10 for 10% off)
  • Camu camu powder for Vitamin C, general immune boosting
  • Cacao powder for magnesium and the brain boosting power of chocolate
  • I get a lot of these add-ins from Thrive Market because the prices are amazing! Get 25% off and free shipping if you’re a new customer!

What to Avoid When Choosing Test Snacks

Not one expert, by the way, listed any munchy crunchy flour-based snacks. I know they’re convenient, but they may do more harm than good when trying to prepare a brain for a stressful test. We’re lookin’ at you, pretzels…

It was partly the pretzels that motivated me to volunteer to head up the parent group’s snacks this year, because it bummed me out that provided snacks weren’t good brain food when I saw the list cross my email last spring.

Now that I understand all the parameters and intricacies surrounding this issue, I get why pretzels made an appearance! Check out what I have to make sure I abide by to get this done:

  1. Must be hand-held, quick to eat in 5 minutes.
  2. Mess free.
  3. Non-perishable enough at least so that any leftovers last until the next testing day, sometimes 5 days away.
  4. I have about 60c per snack to spend.
  5. Recognizable kid-food only. The kids are eating these DURING the test, so there’s zero opportunity to discuss, encourage trying new things, etc., PLUS it’s stressful to not like the snack, so we have to work with that. 

I shared this on Facebook and people were duly shocked! It seemed like every time I had an idea, I ran into one of these 5 walls.

The Power of Mom Brains – More Healthy Test Snack Ideas

best snacks for testing

BUT The KS community also came through on my requests with empathy, adding the following to my experts’ lists as we tried to navigate the feeling of crashing into a wall of restriction with every brainstorm:

Apple chips

One reader even shared an interesting tidbit about glucose and the brain, which may mean that fruit or even applesauce (no fiber) could be an important piece of the puzzle, especially when paired with some fat and protein for satiety.

What We Served for 3rd and 4th Grade Standardized Testing Snacks

We didn’t have any true nut allergies to work around, but I still was pretty careful to stay away from nuts (except in some granola bars), but we did have dairy, gluten and egg allergies to work with. I’m the right mom for the job!!

I did a lot of price checking and found to my horror that cashews at Costco were $0.82/quarter cup, so the most kid-friendly nut was OUT for my trail mix idea, and yogurt pouches/tubes were often out of budget as well, ringing in around $0.75 each. Plus it’s hard to find full fat versions and they often have a lot of sugar. ? Stonyfield and Target both carry a whole milk pouch with less sugar than many, but I decided not to pursue buying 220 of them.

Here’s what I ended up sending to teachers for their opinions: 

  • Apple slices and cheese sticks (48c)
  • Beef sticks and carrots (53c)
  • Carrots and hummus (43c)
  • Trail mix: raisins, chocolate chips, popcorn, sunflower seeds
  • Cheese stick and GF crackers (15c cheese and estimating 18c for 7 crackers from Costco)
  • Granola bars from ALDI (“better” ingredients than some, range from 35-63c, all gluten-free, some dairy-free, some with nuts…)
  • Could add or swap grapes to some of these, 25c each (box of 150 only)

ALDI has pretty high standards for ingredients, and I often find that their brands are far better than others. RELATED: 25 real foodie items I buy at ALDI

granola bars

The parent group president came up with the idea of checking the caf ordering prices and it was the most brilliant idea ever! Those prices cannot be beat!

For example, bags of sliced apples ran us $0.22 but came in boxes of 100. Heading to Walmart to pick up the remaining 20 bags cost us $15.36 or $0.77 per bag! Gah!

Prices above that include school ordering include apple slices, cheese sticks, beef sticks, baby carrots and grapes.

Making Trail Mix for 220 Testing Elementary Kids

The teachers opted for apples/string cheese, trail mix and granola bars.

It wasn’t as hard as I thought to get 220 granola bars at ALDI – they do NOT do bulk ordering or special donations, but I didn’t even have to clean out the store to fulfill our school’s needs.

Girl holding bags of trail mix

Making the trail mix was obviously a time-intensive effort, but worth it, I hope! My 10-year-old daughter absolutely loves efficiency and doing assembly line stuff like this, so she actually ran the show when another mom came over to help. She’s already looking forward to next year! ?

Trail Mix Pricing:

  • Around $0.60 per bag total
  • $0.22-25 for 1/4 cup raisins (Costco)
  • $0.07 for 30 chocolate chips from Costco, dairy-free
  • $0.07 for 1/2 c. SkinnyPop popcorn from Costco
  • $0.19 for 1/4 c. sunflower seeds from ALDI
  • a few cents per zippered sandwich bag

I’m an English major y’all, so that was a lot of math for my brain! ? I over bought on the raisins on accident and would switch to “heaping half cups” of popcorn next year and buy one more bag, since that ingredient is so inexpensive – we only had to buy 3 bags this year.

Bag of trail mix


If you can’t view the video above, see healthy standardized testing snacks directly on YouTube.

Now that I’ve done the research and pricing, which was the hardest part of the process, I’m 110% in for the next few years at least heading up this project at our elementary school — and I hope I’ve made it easier for you to pump up the nutrition for your kids and schools during stressful testing weeks!

Do Tests Stress You Out?

When my oldest took that PSAT last week, he was uncharacteristically nervous, and I was so grateful I had done all this research, because he left feeling GREAT and totally rocked the test! (Or at least he felt really good about it after school, which is 95% of the battle in my opinion.)

There’s SO much stress surrounding testing these days that I decided to devote another entire post to stress-busting foods for test days, including what parents can serve their kids on the morning of a big test.

Would you make special testing foods for your kids or help provide them for the school? What value do you see nutrition bringing to testing?

Big thanks to the following colleagues for their wisdom!

  • Dr. Ryan Wohlfert, Upgraded Parents
  • Jess Sherman, nutritionist and author See her interview on resilience on the Healthy Parenting Connector here.
  • Sara Vance, nutritionist and author See her interview about metabolism on the Healthy Parenting Connector here
  • Sarah Janette, HHC, EPC
  • Dr. Heidi Hanna, Director of the American Institute of Stress
  • Sona Lesmeister, stress coach and member of the American Institute of Stress
  • My other stress mastery colleagues: Taryn S. Young, Paula Jablonski, Lee Bougie & Lisa Dorval

 

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