Exam Fodder

My 10 tips to fuel your teen through the exam season

Lots of parents have been asking me recently what their teenagers should be eating over the next few exam packed months.

Encouraging them to eat well can help maintain their concentration, keep them healthy and reduce anxiety levels. You won’t be around all the time to prepare their meals and snacks but ensuring the kitchen is stocked with some easy to prepare ingredients is a good start.  Your teenager may not appreciate it at the moment but getting them into healthy study habits now will be really valuable to them if they head off to university and have to look after themselves.  Here are my 10 top tips to help you fuel your teen through the exam season:

1. Eat lots of healthy fats

Oily fish like salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel are packed with omega 3 fats. These super fats are to the brain what oil is to a car engine. They help to keep everything running smoothly and our neurotransmitters firing effectively – which is vital when you need to focus and think clearly during an exam.  Vegetarian sources are flax and chia seeds which can be added to smoothies or porridge in the morning. Other easy meal choices include:

2. Egg heads do well

Eggs are an excellent and versatile food for the teenage brain. They are a great source of complete protein containing all the essential amino acids used by the brain to build neurotransmitters. In particular eggs are a good source of tryptophan, which we need to make the neurotransmitter serotonin,  which helps balance our mood, help us sleep and save off depression. Eggs also contain antioxidant vitamins A and E which keep our brain cells in tip-top condition. Teach your teen to make a few egg dishes and they’ll always be able to make themselves a nutritious meal. Frittatas and omelettes are particularly good as you can load them with veggies too.

Choose free-range if you can

3.Avoid caffeine

Caffeine containing drinks like coffee, cola’s, energy drinks and tea can seem like a good idea to prolong revision hours or to perk up a tired mind before an exam. However, the temporary high will be followed by an energy crash and can exacerbate feelings of stress by boosting cortisol (a stress hormone) production particularly in those who are prone to anxiety. Drinking caffeine regularly can also disrupt sleep patterns meaning that your child will become increasingly tired and feel more and more dependent on caffeine to keep them going. Encourage them to stick to tea which contains less caffeine and to limit it to 1 or 2 cups per day only before lunch.
4.Eat slow-releasing carbohydrates

Keeping blood sugar levels balanced is a good way to help reduce energy slumps, irritability and anxiety. To do this avoid refined foods as much as possible. Foods like white rice, pasta, bread, sweets, cookies and cakes will all cause blood sugar levels to rise and then plummet dramatically taking your teen’s mood along for the ride. Encourage them to eat as many wholefoods as they can – wholegrain seedy bread, oats, beans, lentils, sweet potatoes and brown rice are all good choices combine these with protein to slow down the release of energy further. Oats are also a good plant based source of mood-boosting tryptophan for

Some simple ideas for energy giving meals:

  • Porridge with a swirl of peanut butter
  • Scrambled eggs or tofu on toast
  • Baked sweet potato with tuna fish
  • Houmous with oatcakes and veggie sticks
  • Veggie chilli made with black beans and red lentils
  • Veggie omelette with low sugar baked beans

5.Too stressed to eat?

It makes sense that your teenager may feel too stressed to eat particularly the morning before an exam.  Stress stimulates the brain to secrete hormones that activate our fight-or-flight response and reduce appetite. Drinking can be easier than eating when you don’t feel hungry so whizz up a nutrient dense smoothie for your teen to sip slowly. Tempt your teen with this chocolicious treat:
Combine your choice of milk with frozen berries, nut butter, some good quality protein powder, (I like brands such as Nuzest and Pulsin’ which don’t contain any nasty additives), a little maple syrup and a teaspoon of raw cocoa powder.
If sleep is a problem, a comforting bedtime drink might help just as warm milk helps babies to sleep. Golden milk is easy to make and provides a nourishing, soothing drink to help your teen relax.

Golden milk

6.Grab and go options

Peanut or other nut butters are a really good source of protein and energy and can be easily spread onto toast, oatcakes or slices of apple. Even a spoonful from the jar is a decent snack and I’m sure we’d all turn a blind-eye to this habit during exam season. Other options are houmous, their favourite fruits, nuts, seeds, live yoghurt, protein rich snack bars. Brands I like are Deliciously Ella, Rude Health or Bounce as they all make bars which have no added sugar and provide some protein. Homemade protein balls are also a good option and making their own might be a good stress-busting activity between revision sessions. Try my Apricot and Tahini Protein Balls or Good mood Cookies.
7.Keep hydrated
Not drinking enough water is a main cause of lethargy and lack of focus. Treat your child to an attractive stainless steel water bottle to keep their water cool and fresh throughout the day and make sure they are filling it up regularly. Add some lemon, lime or other fruit if they aren’t keen on plain water.
A stylish bottle might encourage your teen to drink more water
8.Time it right
I recommend eating 1-2 hours before an exam if possible. Right before and you risk getting a stomach ache when exam adrenalin switches off the digestive system. Too long before and there’s a chance of an energy slump in the middle of the exam.  It’s also a good idea to pack a small snack for after the exam when the adrenalin has gone and blood sugar drops.
9.Keep calm and get enough magnesium
Magnesium is often called “nature’s tranquiliser” and many of us don’t get enough of it.  Wholefoods like beans, lentils and wholewheat flour,  dark green leafy vegetables like broccoli and spinach and nuts like almonds and cashews are all decent sources. It’s a good idea to provide as much fresh, unprocessed foods as you can to ensure your teen gets enough magnesium and other vital nutrients. If your teen is particularly stressed, salt baths are a good option as magnesium is best absorbed through the skin. I like Better You magnesium flakes.
10.Vegetables and fruit
Eating a rainbow of vegetables and fruits will help to keep your teen healthy and energised. Vitamin C is particularly important at this time as stressed out adrenal glands will quickly use up all their stores. Peppers, oranges, strawberries and broccoli are all good sources. They may not feel like eating veggies at the moment preferring to opt for sugary treats so get tactical. Bring them a plate of chopped up veggies with some houmous, peanut butter or guacamole to snack on whilst they study.  If food is made for them they’re more likely to eat it than searching out unhealthier processed snacks. Smoothies are another way to get a couple of servings of fruit and veggies in to them. A handful of spinach can be easily disguised in a fruity smoothie.   You can keep frozen fruit and spinach in the freezer ready to whizz up anytime.

Finally, get the balance right
Don’t be too strict about enforcing a healthy diet. Encourage healthy meals and snacks when you can but do allow them to indulge in some of their favourite treats. This will help them to relax and unwind after a busy day revising or sitting exams.

Looking for some easy lunch/snack ideas that even the most reluctant chef can pull together? Why not get a copy of mine and Becky’s book PACKED which is full of healthy, simple lunch ideas that all the family can enjoy including Portable Noodles, Good Mood Cookies & Brain Booster Salad.


About Michelle Lake

Hi, I run Mission Nutrition, and I'm a nutritional therapist/ nutritionist helping people all over St Albans & Hertfordshire feel happier & healthier. If your diet needs an overhaul, come and see me for a nutrition consultation! Tel: 01727 893 042 / 01727 869 929 or email michelle@mission-nutrition.co.uk