Short answer: there’s actually a LOT of food you can eat at each meal throughout the day to feed your brain right and optimize your cognitive performance.
The key is to make sure you get these nutrients consistently, i.e. every single day.
Here are some ideas on which types of food you can have for each meal to boost your focus, concentration, and memory.
Tip: Don’t skip it! This is the first meal of the day you’ll need in order to make it through tough study sessions. So don’t just starve yourself or have coffee as a meal replacement. Make it a priority to eat.
- Oatmeal mixed with 1 tablespoon flaxseeds, 1 teaspoon peanut butter, sliced banana or other fresh fruit, and some walnuts or almonds on top. Flaxseeds are an excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a healthy fat that boosts cerebral cortex function.
- A parfait: Layer 1/2 cup of yogurt, 1 tablespoon granola, 1 cup fresh fruit (sliced or diced), and a spoonful of nuts such as walnuts and almonds. Almonds are beneficial for increased attention and awareness necessary for learning, as well as restoring memory and cognitive function.
- Eggs. Eggs are a powerful mix of B vitamins (they help nerve cells to burn glucose), antioxidants (they protect neurons against damage), and omega-3 fatty acids (they keep nerve cells functioning at optimal speed). How many? Two should be enough.
- A beet and berry smoothie. The natural nitrates in beets can increase blood flow to your brain which improves mental performance. In a blender, combine 1/2 cup of orange juice, 1 cup frozen berries (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries), 1/2 cup diced beets (raw or roasted), 1 tablespoon granola, 2–3 dates, 1/4 cup coconut water or plain low-fat yogurt, and 3 ice cubes. Blend for one minute.
Tip: Stay away from fast food; it’s typically greasy and loaded with carbohydrates, which can fill you up quickly but you’ll feel a slump later (and may even feel groggy or sleepy in the afternoon). Opt for a lighter lunch instead.
- A sardine sandwich: Layer sardines with slices of avocado, then squeeze some lemon juice on top. Sardines are rich in omega-3 fatty acids which are responsible for improving brain cell communication and regulating neurotransmitters that boost mental focus. You can pack this sandwich ahead of time and bring to school if you know you’ll be out all day.
- A big salad with protein, fresh spinach and lentils. Some good protein options are grilled chicken, tuna, and salmon (which is rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids). Lentils are rich in vitamin B which can help improve brain power, while dark leafy greens such as spinach may reduce cognitive decline. This is another option for a to-go lunch; just prep everything in an airtight container with a lid, and bring with you to school.
Tip: At some point in the afternoon, it’s normal to feel tired and reach for some candy to get an instant sugar rush. Instead of candy bars, think of other options that you can have as a quick snack.
- Walnuts. This powerful brain food improves cognitive function and can even reduce memory loss. You need less than a handful for maximum effect.
- Fresh fruit. Rich in vitamin C, fruit boosts mental agility and reduces decline in the brain’s cognitive abilities. Eat it whole (apple, banana, tangerine, pear, peach) or dice several different types of fruit and eat as a fruit salad (watermelon, papaya, mango, berries, cantaloupe, oranges, grapefruit, pineapple).
- A fruit and nut mix. This mix of dried fruit and nuts can be prepared ahead of time, it’s portable so you can bring it with you to school or work, and it’s especially good for an energy boost when you feel that mid-afternoon slump.
Tip: Eating pasta, pizza, potatoes, fried food, and similar heavy dinner options are ok if you have them occasionally. However, if you’re focusing on studying (and especially if you’re preparing for an upcoming exam), you’ll want to have dinner that will fill you up while also giving you energy to keep working for a few more hours. Another tip: Make your own salad dressing with fresh lemon juice and olive oil - it’s rich in polyphenols which are found to reduce cognitive decline.
- Seafood. Grill, bake, or saute some salmon, mackerel, kippers, or trout. These are considered oily fish with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids that contribute to healthy brain function and reducing memory loss.
- Tomato and kale salad. Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, an antioxidant that may protect our cells against damage from free radicals which are linked to memory loss. Kale (as well as other dark leafy greens such as chard and spinach) is considered a superfood: it’s rich in many vitamins including A, C, and K, and promotes the resilience of brain cells; it can also positively impact our memory, attention, and verbal abilities.
- Sweet potatoes. They are rich in the powerful antioxidant beta carotene, which has been linked to a boost in the brain’s cognitive function. You can steam or boil them much like regular potatoes, or you can cut them into strips and bake in the oven to make sweet potato fries (spice them up with crushed or smoked paprika, pepper, thyme, oregano).
- Whole grains. Rich in complex carbohydrates, fiber, and omega 3 fatty acids, whole grains release glucose slowly into the bloodstream so that your brain gets a steady boost of energy. They can also promote mental alertness and improve your overall mood. Try steaming or preparing them in a rice cooker. Some examples include bulgur, brown rice, barley, whole wheat couscous, and quinoa (which is technically a seed, but is prepared like a grain such as rice).
- Broccoli. It is an excellent source of vitamin K which is responsible for boosting brain power and cognitive function. Steam it for 5-10 minutes just enough for it to soften without losing its rich green color, then drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice, or add a spoonful of plain Greek yogurt or kefir on top for a boost of calcium.
- Carrots and squash. Much like sweet potatoes, carrots and all types of squash (spaghetti, acorn, butternut, kabocha) are rich in beta carotene, which helps improve memory and verbal skills. You can eat carrots raw, or you can steam or bake them. Squash is easiest to bake in the oven, either by slicing in half or cutting into large cubes and sprinkling with spices such as oregano, paprika, rosemary, or whatever your own spice preference may be.
- Dark chocolate. Good news, right? There’s a reason for it! Cocoa is rich in flavonoids, which are compounds that have been linked to boosting cognitive performance. Have a couple of squares of a good dark chocolate after dinner, instead of other desserts that may be overloaded with sugar and saturated fats (included in candy bars, cakes, doughnuts).