Improve Attention and Focus : Healthy Eating Plan

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As OT’s we see children with a variety of conditions and concerns.  One of the most common issues seen in school aged children includes children who find it challenging to remain focused and attentive.  This could be due to a pre-existing diagnosis such as ADD, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, premature birth and/or ASD.  (It’s important to note here that not all children with Autism/ Premature births have difficulties with attention and focus).

Often there are children who do not fit into a diagnosis.  These children may either be wrongly diagnosed or be labelled as naughty.  There are times when children can’t regulate their attention control due to a variety of reasons.  Parents can help their child’s ability to focus and attend by considering various environmental factors using a multifaceted approach.  These include addressing routine, structure and limiting ‘screen time’.  In addition I would also advise parents/families to monitor and adjust the child’s diet as it has a significant impact on a child’s ability to focus and attend.   A healthy eating plan and eliminating certain food triggers can help your child improve attention and focus.

According to the Women’s and Children’s Health Network, diet has a significant effect on children’s study habits. Junk food and foods with high sugar content deplete energy levels and the ability to concentrate for extended periods of time. Energy and focus are especially crucial for school-age children. Eating junk food may seem innocent enough until you realize how it’s affecting your behavior, cognition and focus. A 2009 study published in the “European Journal of Clinical Nutrition” found that children who indulged in a diet high in junk food were more likely to be hyperactive than those who did not. Hyperactive children generally lack focus and may not be able to concentrate on simple tasks.  Diet has a significant effect on children’s study habits.  “If a kid is having sweets, chocolate croissants or sweetened beverages during the first break time at school instead of his fruit portion or his sandwich, he would definitely feel hungry within an hour and that would disrupt his concentration in class, and could affect his overall performance in school,” explains Chirine Watfa, a dietician at Health Factory, Dubai

Photo credit : Shamil R

Where do I start?

Start by implementing a controlled diet.  Eliminate obvious triggers such as sweets, processed foods, sugary biscuits, energy drinks, sugary cereals, soft drinks, E factors, MSG’s and all other common sense no no’s.  We have remarkable outcomes once the child has started on their elimination diet.  As a result parents and teachers often have better access to their child’s potential.

Lunch box and healthy snack ideas:
  • Fast food and junk food is more colourful and interesting to a child’s palette so weaning them off can be a challenge initially especially when sugar and salt cravings have set in.  Here are some tasty and healthy snack alternatives:
  • Water, water, water !!
  • Pita pockets or wraps (wholemeal) filled with stir fry veges, cheese, hummus, pesto,  tuna.
  • Dried fruit (apricots, raisins, currents, goji berries, dried cranberries),
  • Toasted sesame or pumpkin seeds and a variety of nuts (walnuts are a good source of Omega 3)
  • Frozen fruit (try freezing grapes, blueberries, strawberries or bit of chopped melon, mango or kiwi) ,
  • Fruit juice popsicles (just get some ice-pop moulds filled with half 100% fruit juice of your choice and half water),
  • Smoothies: this hasn’t been as big a hit with my kids as I would have liked but if you can get your kids hooked on smoothies then you have a great opportunity to get those nutrients down.
  • Raw fruit and vegetables sliced and served on a plate with a dip/hummus
  • Popcorn (of the non-microwave variety)
  • Plain yoghurt (flavoured yoghurts often have preservatives, flavourings and aspartame which defeats the purpose of a healthy snack).  You can either add fresh fruit, sprinkle dried fruit and nuts and/or muesli
  • Rice cakes

  Supper Ideas
  • Try and represent a range of colours in one meal (red, yellow, orange and green).
  • Stews and chunky or pulsed soups are an awesome way to get all the veges in one dish,
  • Pasta sauces cooked and pulsed is a great way to hide all the veges.
  • In a meal with a helping of roast chicken or meat served with savoury rice/ quinoa/ cous cous mixed with vegetables

Top Tips

  • Don’t be despondent if child doesn’t at first like a vege/fruit/healthy snack.  Always have it around and offer even one as an option.
  • A meal planner linked to my grocery shopping helps to minimize unnecessary buying and prevents me from last minute panic on what to cook for the day.  I feel half my cooking stress disappears if I know what to cook.
  • Don’t go down the junk food and frozen dinner aisles!  Unless you have your blinkers on 🙂
  • Keep them snacking in moderation.  Little M is my grazer and if left to help herself to the snack cupboard she will graze herself out of eating dinner.  If your kids are sticking to their meal times then offer 1 or 2 healthy snacks in between meals.  Try not to give them a snack less than half hour before a mealtime.  They honestly are not starving (as Little M would like me to believe) if they are having a good meal routine.  And if they didn’t eat well at lunch then you can count on them having a better portion at dinner  time.
  • I personally still have treats such as biscuits and cakes on occasion but I am a little sneaky because I tell them to eat their fruit first and then they can have their cake.  Leaves a tinier space in their tummies for the naughty stuff.  Pity this trick doesn’t work on my tummy.
  • Most importantly don’t be too hard on yourself … There will be days that are so crazy that a Pizza Dinner is all you can manage.


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