Simple strategies for making your morning meal healthier—for your kids and for you.

By Mallory Creveling

When you’re rushing out the door in the morning, a few things shouldn’t slip from your must-grab list: your kid’s book bag, your keys and, most important, breakfast! That’s the simple secret to raising healthy children who perform well in school. Studies have shown that kids who munch in the a.m. get better grades, have higher IQs and are more likely to stay on task in the classroom. Eating breakfast can also lower BMI, reduce the risk of obesity and control blood sugar surges in those with diabetes. Plus it helps kids get necessary nutrients.

To build a better-for-you breakfast (and find ways to sneak one in), follow these three key strategies from Amy Moyer, RD, director of field operations at Action for Healthy Kids, a nonprofit that promotes healthy eating, encourages physical activity and helps bring free breakfasts into schools.

1. Get these four essential nutrients. 

What everyone should get from their breakfast fare: a dose of complex carbs, fiber (whole grains cover both), protein and calcium. “That’s what keeps you focused and full until lunchtime,” says Moyer. Some solid options include a banana, an apple or toast with peanut butter, or cheese with whole wheat crackers. String cheese makes a good option, since it’s packed with protein and calcium—just opt for one that’s 100% mozzarella. If you have time for a bigger family meal, mix some oatmeal with brown sugar or raisins, or create an egg scramble with veggies like spinach. Yogurt smoothies and parfaits with granola are also ideal picks.

On days when deadlines, before-school events or catching extra zzz’s get in the way of your regular morning routine and force you and your family to munch on the run, have some grab-and-go options in place. Put out a bowl of fruit, like apples, pears or bananas, or place whole-grain granola bars in an easy-to-reach spot in the kitchen. Then everyone can pick something up on the way out the door.

2. Make the calories count.

“Girls in particular tend to avoid eating a lot of calories, but the morning is when vitamins and minerals are really key to kick-starting the day,” says Moyer. Encourage both boys and girls to eat something hearty to keep energy elevated until lunch, and have them aim to get about 25% to 33% of daily calories from that first meal.

Here’s a breakdown of what different age groups need at breakfast. The more active your son or daughter, the more calories they require.

4- to 8-year-olds, 300 to 600 calories

9- to 13-year-olds, 450 to 700 calories

14- to 18-year-olds, 450 to 1,000 calories

3. Pick healthy products.

Cereal with milk can provide the nutrients needed for a.m. momentum, but double-check your brand to make sure it's at the top of the good-for-you list by reading the label. Whole wheat, whole-grain wheat flour or wheat bran should be one of the first three ingredients listed. It should also include 3 grams or more of fiber and 7 grams or less of sugar.

Finally, remember: If you want your teens and tweens to make breakfast a priority, you have to make it one for yourself. They’ll learn by example and pick up on your cues to grab a bite before diving into work.

Amy Moyer, RD, serves as the Action for Healthy Kids (AFHK) director of field operations, providing direction, leadership and management over the organization’s school and volunteer programs. She has a master’s degree in public health and a bachelor’s in dietetics/nutrition, fitness and health from Purdue University. Prior to AFHK, she worked in corporate wellness at the National Institute for Fitness and Sport and as a clinical dietitian at the Indiana Center for Bariatric Medicine.