The alarm clock goes off and the scramble begins. The scramble to get kids up and out the door, that is. But scramble of the egg variety? Not so much. Despite most of us recognizing the importance of a good breakfast, we often allow time constraints to dictate the menu—and the results are usually less than inspiring. Some folks even skip it altogether! Others rely on overly sweetened cereal or toaster pastries as quick stopgaps.

However, far more nutritious fare exists that is surprisingly easy to prepare. With a little preplanning, a dash of imagination, and some parental know-how, it is possible to deliver a healthy breakfast amid the morning rush—and yes, your kids will eat it.

Tons of research has been done demonstrating how children who eat breakfast are more alert at school and perform better than those who don’t. Exactly what they eat matters, too. A 2005 Tufts University study involving 6- to 11-year-olds confirmed previous findings that breakfast intake enhances cognitive performance. More significantly, it showed pumped-up performance in children who consumed instant oatmeal versus a breakfast that was low in fiber and high in sugar. The oatmeal-eaters exhibited improved short-term memory and were clearly better listeners and problem-solvers.

Children who eat breakfast typically have healthier body weights, as well, according to Karen Ansel, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and coauthor of The Baby & Toddler Cookbook: Fresh, Homemade Foods for a Healthy Start. “Breakfast impacts your child’s nutrition long-term because children who skip breakfast rarely make up for lost nutrients later in the day,” Ansel says.

Stepping Up to the Plate

So what does a healthy breakfast consist of? Whenever possible, it should include items from each of the five food groups that are building blocks for a healthy diet. For a refresher on exactly what those are, consult the USDA’s helpful website

Basically, you need a grain—foods like cold whole-grain cereal, hot oatmeal, or whole-wheat bread and tortillas—to fuel kids’ brains and muscles. Add a protein like eggs, a nut butter, or a lean meat such as turkey sausage to keep them full and focused. Be sure to include some dairy—think low-fat yogurt, milk, or cheese. And don’t forget crucial fruits and vegetables for vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Top choices include calcium-fortified orange juice, fresh berries, bananas, reduced-sodium vegetable juice, and sliced avocado.

Motivating the Players

Maybe you’re thinking, well, it all sounds good in theory, but my kids won’t eat any of that! It comes down to what’s available in the home, according to Natalie Muth, a pediatrician, registered dietician, and author of Eat Your Vegetables, a book that redefines how to raise healthy eaters. “Kids will eat what’s there. So if all that’s there are healthy options, that’s what kids are going to eat,” she says. “Kids love habit. They love a schedule. They thrive on it. Getting them into the routine of breakfast, telling them this is what we’re going to offer you, this is when we’re going to have it—even if they reject the idea initially, eventually kids will come around.”

In Muth’s practice, she rarely encounters a child who doesn’t like some kind of fruit, at least. She suggests employing a tactic known as “bridging” to widen a child’s taste spectrum. The idea is to start with something a child likes and then bridge him to something similar in taste or texture; once he comes around to liking that, you bridge him to the next thing. For example, a child who likes apple pie could probably be convinced to eat baked apples with cinnamon. From there he’ll most likely try a raw apple slice, and then you can bridge him to a pear and from a pear to other fruits. “As kids get more exposure to different foods, they start to like them more,” Muth says. “There’s a lot of research that shows it can take kids 15 to 20 times to like a previously rejected food.”

Winning Strategies

A good breakfast does take some planning. You have to stock the pantry and fridge with the right supplies and banish overly sugary and empty-calorie foodstuffs. Time spent Sun-day afternoon devising menus and shopping for a week’s worth of healthy meals will put you ahead of the game. Other organizational strategies include setting the table the night before, perhaps even pouring the cereal (whole-grain, naturally) into bowls to save precious time and cut down on stress. If kids are sleeping in and leaving no time to eat, try putting them to bed 15 to 30 minutes earlier so they can wake up and have a few extra minutes for breakfast.

Even the best-laid plans for a sit-down breakfast can fall apart on particularly hectic mornings. Indeed, many families simply never have time to gather round the kitchen table. That’s when you have to get creative. “Grab-and-go breakfasts can be equally as healthy as a sit-down breakfast and are invaluable for making sure your child gets an optimum start to his or her day,” Ansel says. She suggests trying some of following delicious and nutrition-packed options, good either at home or on the run:

  • Corn tortillas with sliced low-fat cheddar cheese and sliced avocado
  • Waffle sandwiches made from whole-grain waffles and peanut, soy nut, or sunflower butter and sliced apples or bananas
  • Yogurt parfaits made with yogurt, crunchy whole-grain cereal, and fresh berries
  • Smoothies made with Greek yogurt for extra protein and a few tablespoons of instant oatmeal for extra complex carbohydrates and fiber

On mornings when simply getting out the door seems like a major feat in itself, Muth says you can’t go wrong grabbing a piece of fruit, even if it’s only a banana to eat in the car or while walking to school. Make up for shortfalls by providing a healthy midmorning snack. This plan also works well for kids who aren’t hungry first thing in the morning but are ravenous by recess. Ansel suggests these healthy snack ideas:

  • Trail mix made from toasted oat cereal, dried fruit, and peanuts or sunflower seeds
  • Greek yogurt with some fresh fruit
  • Hummus with fresh vegetables or whole-grain pita chips for dipping
  • Whole-grain crackers with a sweet ricotta spread made from part-skim ricotta cheese and a pinch of cinnamon sugar

Home Run

Resisting the lure of convenient but poor breakfast choices marketed at kids might be hard at first. “You have to retrain their taste buds. Parents can change a child’s palate,” Muth says. “Just make sure that what’s available to them are healthy options...because eventually a hungry child will eat.” Some patience will be required. Put in the effort, however, and you’ll discover that the long-term effects not only on your child’s school performance but also on his overall good health and eating habits will be well worth it.