Don't leave home without breakfast

While it's important for adults to have a healthy meal in the morning, it's especially crucial for young ones to get enough nutrition to fuel their brains and perform their best.

Because of this, Milo Malaysia, for instance, launched its Milo Nutrition Movement, designed to create nutritional awareness among parents and children by sharing the importance of a balanced diet, especially breakfast, in providing sufficient energy to sustain the daily activities of children.

But due to busy schedules, many parents choose to skip breakfast themselves, passing this habit down to their children. Others allow their children to make their own food choices with the pocket money they have.

Sharifah Azliliyani and her husband trust their two sons to make healthy food choices on their own.

"Because of our hectic schedule, our kids do not have breakfast at all before leaving for school. Occasionally, they'll grab some buns or 'kuih-muih' (cakes) from hawkers if we can manage the time.

"As for my husband and I, we will occasionally get nasi lemak or go out for breakfast after sending the kids to school; and on days that we do not feel like going out, we will just scramble or half-boil some eggs, or have bread with some leftover curry.

"As parents, we don't insist on any morning rituals as far as food and beverage is concerned because we trust our kids to find food that is to their liking, either within the school compound or from outside hawkers and stalls," says Sharifah Azliliyani.

But, children aren't wise enough to make their own choices, says teacher of 25 years, Rohani Bakar.

"We can't expect a 9 year old to know what's good for him or her. After all, it's tough enough for us, as adults, to know what's nutritious and what's not. Children are always going to be more attracted to food that's colourful, sweet or anything that comes with a toy.

"We can give them all the pocket money in the world, but that's not going to make them choose the best items at the canteen; it'll only enable them to buy more junk food.

"As a teacher, I see kids buying food and drinks from hawkers outside the school compound every day. And it's only become worse over the years.

"As teachers, we try to discourage them, but they think it's okay because their parents don't mind."

Secondary school teacher, Anpalagan Mariappen, says teachers can tell whether a student has had a good breakfast or not.

"Teachers can easily notice the level of energy and attentiveness of students while lessons are being conducted. Those who have breakfast are usually more participative and show more enthusiasm compared with students who don't.

"Their faces display whether they have taken the most important meal of the day.

"From observation and experience, one can't eat too heavy a meal, or else the sleepiness will kick in. In contrast, one can't take nothing at all because it will affect concentration in the morning. I believe there must be the right balance," Anpalagan says.

Mother of two, Deepa Ramachandran, says she always insists her kids have breakfast.

"I make sure my children have breakfast before leaving the house, and this includes weekends.

"On days when they oversleep, I will still find the time to prepare something for them to eat on the way to school or prepare a cup of Milo. I have never let my children go without breakfast. I want them to learn the importance of breakfast from young, as I did from my parents, and hence both my husband and I ensure we provide our kids with breakfast daily.

"Whether it's bread with jam or peanut butter, some eggs, milk, Milo, crackers or cereal, we make sure they have something nutritious before leaving the house.

"Their grandmother sometimes makes home made treats such as strawberry, kaya or papaya jam for them."

Deepa says because her eldest child will be attending primary school soon, she's going to have to take extra steps to ensure she makes healthy food choices.

"So far, my kids have been attending kindergarten, so I have not had to worry about them eating canteen food. But my eldest daughter will be heading to Year One next year and we've made a strong commitment that as responsible parents, we will ensure that she will know the right food to eat and the kind of food to avoid during recess.

"I guess I will have to work harder in preparing them healthy yet tasty meals to take to school, too. Both my husband and I are strict about our kids buying food from peddlers outside the school compound."

Her children look forward to family weekend breakfasts, she says.

"On weekends we all get up a little later and have breakfast together as a family. Usually, I will make something special like pancakes or omelettes. Occasionally, we do go out to have our Indian breakfast or even our favourite nasi lemak."

For a healthy start

BREAKFAST is especially important for school-going children for development of their bodies, mental state and to enable active learning, says Nestle's corporate wellness manager, Cher Siew Wei.

"Children need a constant supply of energy and nutrients compared to adults. Breakfast is a meal where the body breaks the eight-hour fasting period while the body rests. During sleep, the body will still consume and burn a small amount of calories although it does not perform excessive movements.

"Without breakfast, the body does not get its supply of energy and nutrients, which was burnt throughout the night. If this persists for a long period of time, our body will be deprived of important nutrients which could trigger symptoms of malnutrition, such as anaemia.

"Ideally, breakfast should be taken within an hour or two, once awake. As we drag our feet to have breakfast, the brain continues to starve also, causing our thinking to be unfocused and our responses to be slow."

She says while it's important for kids to have breakfast every day, what they eat in the morning is crucial too.

"Research has shown that eating a wholesome and balanced breakfast -- one that includes complex carbohydrates, such as whole grain breakfast cereals, wholemeal bread and whole-wheat crackers, protein, such as milk, yoghurt, tuna and egg, and vegetables or fruits help boost brain function.

"Parents should teach their kids to get into the habit of reading food labels when purchasing packaged food. It's important to make a comparison between brands of similar products using information on packaging labels."

Unfortunately, most busy parents prefer to give their children pocket money to buy canteen food instead of preparing something at home, Cher says.

"The danger in doing this lies in the child making wrong choices and only going for sweet snacks, instead of proper solid nutritious food.

"Furthermore, when a child goes to school and meets his friends, there is a great possibility that the child will forget to get breakfast due to the more attractive choice of playing with his friends. As a result, the child might only get his first meal of the day during recess; and that defeats the whole purpose of having breakfast.

"These dangers further underline the urgent need for both parents and teachers to teach children the importance of making healthy food choices in schools. As this is not only one party's job, both parents and teachers need to work together and play their roles."

As a start, there are some basic guidelines for a child's breakfast food selection.

"Avoid refined carbohydrates such as white bread, doughnuts, cookies and sugar-coated breakfast cereals. Instead, choose wholemeal bread, whole-wheat crackers, whole-grain breakfast cereals and oats.

"Foods high in refined carbohydrates tend to significantly raise blood sugar levels, which will produce a sugar-rush effect because there's a sudden load of energy supply. This period will wear off within two hours, and when sugar levels drop the child will experience fatigue and tiredness."

For parents who can't seem to find the time to prepare a fancy breakfast, there are other options, she says.

"Understandably, frying omelettes and making pancakes may be time- consuming for parents who are constantly rushing to get their children to school and beat the morning traffic to work.

"Not to fret, try purchasing food that the children can help themselves to such as whole-grain cereals, wholemeal bread, whole-wheat crackers, milk and yoghurt. However, until they are old enough to prepare their own breakfast, parents should prepare their hot beverages for them.

"Remember that breakfast should be interesting and coloured with variety. Treat your children to pancakes and omelettes on weekends."

Children, she stresses, should be warned of the dangers of unhealthy snacks, because they may not know any better.

"Educate your children on nutrition so they'll make healthy lifestyle choices even when they're older. Unhealthy snacks which are usually high in sugar, salt and fat contain very low amounts of essential nutrients.

"They are known to cause malnutrition among children as they deprive them of required nutrients.

"Ultimately, these children may be more prone to lifestyle-related diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases even at a very young age.

"They will also more likely contract common cold easily as their body does not get enough nutrients to build up strong antibodies.

"Also, due to malnutrition, children may fail to grow and develop optimally and their mental development and performance may be affected too."

Their breakfast of choice

Sara Iman, 11

"I usually have cereal for breakfast -- Koko Krunch with milk is my favourite. Sometimes I also have wheatgerm bread with jam and peanut butter or cheese, with a glass of Milo. My mum always makes sure I eat a full breakfast, I can't get away with just nibbling on a few biscuits.

"Weekends are my favourite because we always have something tastier, like pancakes, roti canai or nasi lemak.

"My mom gives me RM3 a day to take to school. Usually I spend it on fried wanton. But it's never enough because they are small and cost 50 sen each! Sometimes I buy pencil lead or erasers with my pocket money, so I have to just eat the sandwiches in my lunch box and forget about buying my favourite wanton -- those are bad days.

"My school canteen doesn't sell junk food, like sweets and chips. But not to worry, the auntie who drives my school bus has a box full of goodies that we can choose from."

Abigail Chien, 11

"At 7.20am I have chocolate milk and weetbix for breakfast at home. Sometimes I have breakfast with my friends again at 10am, and we usually prefer nuggets or egg sandwiches.

"My grandfather gives me RM3 every day, but if I want to buy stationery from the bookshop, I get RM2 extra.

"I don't like my school canteen food because it's usually dry and cold. But sometimes they have nasi lemak, which is my favourite. I also like to sip on orange and green tea juice throughout the day."

Aaron Chien, 13

"Normally, I grab a Granola bar and box of chocolate milk before heading to school. I can't eat too much as I don't really feel that hungry in the morning, but my grandfather always insists that I eat at least something before leaving the house.

"When in school, I prefer nasi lemak or fried chicken. My school canteen doesn't sell junk food at all so I'm used to not snacking much, especially in the mornings."

Nur Atikah Pfordten, 6, Nur Alisya Pfordten, 4,

"I prefer cornflakes for breakfast. Sometimes I'll have roti canai or cheese slices. But on certain days my grandmother will prepare 'sup panjang' (long noodles) which is actually Maggi instant noodles. I really like that but my bapak (father) only allows me to have it when I really don't feel like eating anything else. My sister is more picky, she usually sticks to toast with butter."

Sharvin Gobalakrishnana, 12

"I like to have a glass of milk or Milo for breakfast, sometimes I have it with a few biscuits. In school I do buy one or two things like sausages or fried chicken. My school canteen used to sell nuggets, but unfortunately they've stopped selling those.

"On weekends, my father buys us nasi lemak, beehoon or fish balls. Weekend breakfasts are much better than weekday ones."