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What are your kids eating for breakfast?

Six breakfast plates now sit before you: Greek yogurt and a banana; a doughnut; a bowl of oatmeal; a bowl of sugary, fruity cereal; scrambled eggs and bacon; and lastly, an empty plate. If you had to rank them from healthiest to least healthy, what order would you choose? Certain things might seem obvious, such as choosing the oatmeal over a doughnut, but what about the sugary cereal or doughnut versus the empty plate?

According to Elisabeth D'Alto, a registered dietitian and in-store nutritionist at Martin's in Eldersburg, it's fairly common for parents and children to wind up with the empty plate on busy school mornings, and despite the fact that doughnuts are far from anyone's concept of health food, eating nothing might just be worse.

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"Any breakfast is better than no breakfast at all," she said. "If you're skipping [breakfast] entirely and not fueling your body with anything, that's when you are more likely to indulge and overeat later in the day, which can lead to being overweight."

Score one for the doughnut.

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Moreover, skipping breakfast — even if you are not hungry at the time — can lead to distracting hunger later in the day, according to D'Alto. She said that according to research by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, eating breakfast has cognitive benefits for children in school.

"Some of the things they have found in recent research are that it helps them concentrate better in school versus kids that skip breakfast," D'Alto said. "It also helps with improving test scores and their attendance rates are higher."

Getting your kids to eat something in the morning is even more important for younger children, who may not be able to understand or communicate their needs even when asked, according to Karen Sarno, supervisor of food services for Carroll County Public Schools.

"A lot of times, kids in elementary school cannot recognize hunger," she said. "They will end up in the nurse's office with a headache or a stomachache."

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Eat something, but aim for something better

So if the only options are a doughnut, or a Pop-Tart on the way out the door, it's better than nothing … but eating poorly out of necessity in a pinch shouldn't be taken as license to eat poorly every morning, and a poor meal one morning should be balanced by eating better at lunch and throughout the week, according to Darlene Flaherty, director of nutrition services at the Carroll County Health Department.

"Pop-Tarts or Toaster Strudels or something like that — that is eating something, but the downfall is they are higher in sugar and … they don't have satiety value long term," she said. Sugar and carbohydrates provide quick energy, but don't have the staying power to carry children all the way through to lunchtime.

Score one for the bacon and eggs, oatmeal and banana and yogurt, which also contains protein that D'Alto said is key to long-lasting energy.

"One of the things you want to try and do is combine a carbohydrate with a protein," she said. "The reason we want to do that is because carbs give our bodies energy right away. Protein kicks in later. It makes us feel full and gives us more satiety, because it takes more time for our bodies to break down a protein."

The key is balance

Not all carbohydrates and proteins are created equal, however. According to Toby Smithson, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the key to a healthy breakfast — and any meal for that matter — is balancing food sources from each of the five recommended food groups, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPlate dietary recommendations, and the successor to the former food pyramid.

"You really want to focus on at least three out of the five major food groups … lean protein, low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables and whole grains," Smithson said. "That's how I usually direct families in putting together better food sources."

According to the USDA MyPlate website, the fruit group can include apples, grapes, tropical and stone fruits, as well as any 100 percent fruit juice. Lean proteins include meats, seafood, nuts and beans; low-fat dairy includes low or non-fat milk and calcium fortified soy milk; and whole grains include whole wheat, cracked wheat, oatmeal, whole cornmeal and brown rice.

The vegetable group, according to the website, includes leafy greens like lettuce, starchy vegetables like potatoes, and red and orange vegetables like carrots and bell peppers.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics feels so strongly about the issue of a balanced breakfast, in fact, that it has launched a website dedicated to school age nutrition, http://www.eatright.org/kids, and declared August to be the first annual Kids Eat Right Month to coincide with the return to school, according to Smithson.

"This whole month, we are really strongly promoting [breakfast]," she said. "We have a website and a lot of tools for families and ideas for picky eaters. There are videos on how to make some dishes with your kid."

What's on the menu?

Knowing what food items are in the food groups is one thing, but exactly what combinations make for a good breakfast that doesn't take an hour to make? Flaherty suggested the tried and true peanut butter and jelly sandwich for balance and portability.

"People think it's lunch, but it could easily be a breakfast," she said. She also recommended trail mix with nuts and dried fruit or a hard-boiled egg and whole wheat toast.

According to D'Alto, the one thing to keep in mind is that breakfast does not have to be complicated. Over-thinking things can lead to frustration and the empty plate.

"There is nothing wrong with cereal and a glass of milk," D'Alto said. "If you put a piece of whole grain toast with peanut butter, that's a good combination. A hard-boiled egg and an apple, oatmeal made with milk rather than water and then you could put some cinnamon on there or some bananas to kind of play it up a little bit."

One could also take a page from the breakfast menu of Carroll County Public Schools, which according to Sarno includes options for a hot entree consisting of meat and a whole grain, such as a breakfast sandwich, or cold whole-grain options such as cereal or a bagel with cream cheese.

Students are also offered milk and fruit juice, part of a new requirement that students increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables.

"It has to have a measured cup of fruit — we're doing half a cup of fruit juice and another half cup of another fruit choice. They must take at least half of that, a half a cup for us to count it as a meal," she said. "In the past, we offered the fruit, but we didn't have to require the kids take it. This school year, we offer twice the amount of fruit and the child must walk away with at least a half a cup."

Combating the persistence of the empty plate

Even with simple options available, Smithson said experts understand that sometimes, it's just not possible to grab something healthy in a hurry. Sometimes, a pastry really is better than nothing, but there are generally quick and easy ways to add nutrition to an otherwise junk food meal.

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"I would say, why not also have milk with the Pop-Tart, so they are starting to balance it out right away?" Smithson said. "Milk brings not only protein, but also calcium, a nutrient that we don't get enough of."

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There's also the fact that a minimal amount of planning and multitasking can ensure children get a healthier breakfast on more mornings than not, according to Flaherty.

"We talk about packing lunch, but they can have breakfast at the same time," Flaherty said. "If you were going to put a Pop-Tart in the toaster, how much harder is it to put a piece of toast in the toaster?"

Sometimes, however, children are just not hungry in the morning, which is why Sarno said the Carroll County Public School system now offers breakfast at every one of its schools.

"If they choose to eat at home they can get it at home. If they come to school they can have breakfast with us," she said. "They can purchase breakfast for $1.50, or, if they are eligible for reduced price lunches, they can get it at that reduced price or for free."

Parents can also prepay for their child's breakfast using the school system's online payment service. However they pay for it, breakfast at school is a largely untapped resource, according to Sarno, with only a small percentage of the student population ordering a morning meal last year.

"Last year we served 388,986 student breakfasts and our average daily participation was approximately 2,300 [students]," she said. That's a number that sounds impressive at first, but the entire student body was closer to 26,000 students.

"Breakfast is an area where, honestly, we have the capacity to serve more kids," Sarno said.

Scoring your choices

In light of the experts' opinions, how do the six breakfasts stack up? The verdict seems pretty clear on the empty plate — avoid at all costs, even the cost of a doughnut.

Let's count it a six, or last place.

The doughnut is only better than the empty plate due to breakfast triage, a certain score of five, so what about the fruity cereal? It's sugary for certain, but milk would add calcium and protein. Flaherty suggests diluting such cereal could improve it.

"The thing about the Froot Loops, I always suggest people mix Cheerios and Froot Loops together, or Cheerios and Frosted Cheerios. I would prefer the plain, but if kids really want the sweet, the mixing dilutes the sugar."

Call the cereal a modifiable four.

What about the eggs and bacon? Besides it being an involved breakfast that takes time, Flaherty said it is lacking grains or fruit.

"I wouldn't say that it is a bad breakfast, you have the protein there. I wouldn't recommend that five days a week and most of us don't eat that way five days a week," Flaherty said. "Scrambled eggs and a whole wheat muffin though? You could do a whole lot worse."

Eggs and bacon score a three.

Oatmeal versus the yogurt and banana? The ranking becomes trickier, as oatmeal made with milk as D'Alto suggested has grains, dairy and decent protein content.

Yet the oatmeal as it exists lacks a serving of fruit and, even when instant, can be a complicated operation in a morning where parents and children alike are wiping sleep and summer vacation from their eyes. According to D'Alto, the oatmeal must score a three.

"You grab a Greek yogurt — there is double the amount of protein in Greek yogurt — and you grab a banana and that would be a perfect breakfast," she said.

Banana and yogurt for the win.

Reach staff writer Jon Kelvey at 410-857-3317 or at jon.kelvey@carrollcountytimes.com.

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