During the first two years of life, your child’s brain grows faster than it will at any other time during his or her life. To maintain this very rapid growth, the brain needs certain nutrients, including healthy fats, DHA, iron, and certain critical nutrients.
Throughout childhood, nutrients and food are a source of fuel for the brain. What you choose to feed your child can make a difference in the child’s learning, understanding, and memory. Not only is food important, both physical activity and sleep are also key factors in healthy brain development.
Here are six foods that support healthy brain function and development:
1. Blueberries. Full of flavonoids, blueberries help improve memory, learning, and general thinking while slowing the age-related decrease in mental ability.
Quick Tip: Blueberries are an incredibly convenient and versatile food! Include blueberries on cereal, in salads, yogurt parfaits, or just grab a handful. Squish a blueberry a little bit for the new eater.
2. Olives. Eating olives regularly may lead to less brain deterioration over time. The mono-unsaturated fat in olives is used by all cells and promotes the transportation of more oxygen to the brain.
Quick Tip: Use olives as snack food, as a side dish in lunch boxes, or as a pre-dinner appetizer. Chop them for the young eater to prevent choking.
3. Nuts. Nuts have both monounsaturated fats and vitamin E, which protects the brain from degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s by squelching brain cell–damaging elements called free radicals.
Quick Tip: When your toddler is developmentally ready for a nut butter spread, give it a try. There’s no need to hold off on nuts due to fear of an allergic reaction. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the introduction of nuts be developmentally appropriate (a thin spread or fine chop for little ones) and should occur sometime after 6 months of age when other solid foods have been introduced in the diet and tolerated. If you have a high risk for food allergy in your family, discuss the timing of introducing nuts with your doctor.
4. Fish. Eating fish regularly seems to have an effect on brain size (mass) and may slow the aging process of the brain. The oils (omega-3 fats) present in fatty fish enhance problem solving, concentration, and memory.
Quick Tip: Get the fish habit started early. Cooked fish can be introduced in the first year when baby shows signs of readiness for more textured food. While the goal is two servings per week of fatty fish (e.g., salmon, halibut, mackerel, trout) for adults and older children, one serving a week is acceptable for young children. Make sure fish is cooked and limit mercury-containing fish such as swordfish.
5. Avocado. Naturally rich in healthy fats (omega-3 fatty acids), avocado improves blood flow to the brain, which is a natural way to enhance brain ability.
Quick Tip: Mashed avocado is a great first food for babies. For older toddlers and preschoolers, mash avocado on sandwiches in lieu of mayonnaise, chop into cubes as a finger food, or serve a halved avocado with a spoon and squeeze of lemon juice.
6. Eggs. Children have a developing memory center, which forms during the first 6 years of life. Choline is an important nutrient in this process. One yolk has about 200 milligrams of choline, which meets or nearly meets the needs of children up to 8 years. Eggs also contain iron, folate, and vitamin A and D (if enhanced), which are important for normal growth and development.
Quick Tip: Children can have eggs! The current thinking according to the 2015 proposed Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) is that eggs do not directly cause elevated cholesterol levels in the blood. Try scrambled, poached, hard-boiled, frittatas, quiches, and omelets, and of course, included in baked goods.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, September 2020
- The nutrients in food can help your child’s brain growth and development.
- Certain foods contain key nutrients and healthy fats, which help the brain to function optimally.
- Be sure to add in smart foods like blueberries, avocados, and even eggs into your child’s diet.