The Exam Diet: Best brain foods to give your child while they're studying

If your kids are about to sit their exams, now's the time to make sure their brains are well-fed. Follow these tips to help them do their best!

exam diet

If your son or daughter is sitting A Level or GCSE exams or has them coming up, it's vital you make sure their brains get a constant supply of energy. This is not a day-by-day diet plan but simple tips and things to look out for to help your child achieve the best possible marks come A level results day.

Just as a weight lifter needs a different diet from a long distance runner, teenagers sitting exams need a different diet from other children, according to natural health expert Michael van Straten. The correct exam diet can even, Michael says, make the difference between a pass or a fail, an A or a C grade.

Different foods are broken down in different ways and have different effects on the body. In this exam diet, Michael suggests ways of making sure your child's brain receives a constant and steady stream of energy, helping them concentrate as well as possible for as long as possible.

These foods will help your kids avoid slumps that could slow down their revision. How often they eat is just as important as what they eat so Michael advises on the frequency of meals too. Exam diet food is anyone with exams coming up, whether you're 13 or 73.

Best brain food for studying:

  • Oily fish for essential fatty acids, for example sardines, salmon, tuna, pilchards, herrings or mackerel
  • Prawns, shrimps and shellfish for zinc
  • All red meat and poultry for protein, iron and B vitamins
  • Wholegrain cereals for B vitamins and slow-release energy
  • Nuts and seeds (for example, pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds, brazil nuts, walnuts and peanuts) for essential oils, zinc and selenium
  • Fresh fruit, salads and green vegetables for vitamins C, A and folic acid
  • Liver for vitamin A, iron and B12 (not to be taken by pregnant women)
  • Rosemary, sage, basil and ginger all enhance brain function

Boost vitamins and minerals: According to Michael Van Straten, the majority of children aged between 10 and 16 are seriously deficient in some of the vital nutrients they need, especially vitamins A, B6, zinc and calcium. But it's the lack of iron and folic acid in their diets that really affects their mental powers, as these are needed to make sure there is sufficient oxygen in their blood.

Don't worry, though. It's really easy to avoid these problems and guarantee that the brain has everything it needs to cope with the extra demands of exam time. Just include a regular supply of super brain foods.

Limit refined sugar: It might be tempting to feed your child sweets, chocolate or energy bars to keep them going but in fact, sugary foods should be kept to an absolute minimum. Anything else with a high-sugar content will give your child a short term boost but this will be followed by a sudden drop in blood sugar. The result is a roller coaster of brain function that can seriously interfere with concentration, memory and performance.

The sugars your child's brain needs should come mostly from unrefined starches like wholemeal bread, wholegrain cereals, oats in porridge or muesli, rice, beans, and pasta. These all provide a slow release of energy to help keep their blood sugar on an even keel.

If your child is not used to eating this type of food, they might not welcome the change, especially at such a stressful time. If they're really resistant, try to incorporate a few small changes such as changing their snacks or making sure they take a daily vitamin pill.

As well as providing your child with the right food, encourage them to take a good multivitamin and mineral supplement. One study in a Welsh school tested the IQ of a group of children. For eight months they were given a vitamin and mineral pill or a placebo and then their IQs were tested again. The children who took the vitamins improved on average five times more than the children taking the placebo.

What to eat before an exam:

Even if your child normally skips breakfast or avoids eating when they're feeling nervous, make sure they still take the time to eat something. Their brain will need the energy from food to work efficiently, and eating before an exam will ensure your child's mental focus is kept on the exam and not on their hunger.

Healthy food choices on exam day include protein-rich foods such as eggs, nuts, cottage cheese and yoghurt. A good breakfast combination might include whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk, porridge, muesli or eggs and toast with jam

exam diet

Credit: Getty

Exam diet meals

In order for your child's brain to do its job efficiently, they must eat at regular intervals, at least every three hours. Don't let them go too long between meals and provide them with healthy, nutritious snacks like fruit, nuts or wholegrain cereals.

Think about what kind of meals you're providing at what time of the day.

Meals rich in starchy foods like pasta, rice, bread, cakes and biscuits trigger the release of the hormone serotonin from the brain, which is relaxing and prepares you for sleep. These are an ideal evening meal but not great at lunchtime. High protein foods like meat, fish, poultry, cheese and eggs stimulate the brain so are better for use at lunchtime.

If your kids are sitting exams or are just getting ready for them, this is an example of how they should be eating.


1 large glass of fresh fruit juice, large chunk of cheese, a tomato and 1 slice of wholemeal toast OR 1 egg, lean grilled bacon and a low fat grilled sausage

Mid morning snack:

Dried apricots, raisins, dates and plain fresh nuts. 1 banana.


Meat, chicken or fish with vegetables or a large mixed salad which includes basil and a sprinkle of pumpkin seeds. A mug of ginger tea (make this yourself by grating half an inch of ginger root into a mug of boiling water and adding 1tsp honey).

Mid afternoon snack:

Cheese, hard boiled egg or hummus with raw carrot, red pepper and celery, plus any fresh fruit


Thick root vegetable casserole or pasta with tuna fish and basil (for recipes for both of these, read on). Fruit crumble for dessert (recipe also below).

Also during the day, your child can eat a handful of semi-dried dates and a banana. Encourage them to drink at least three to four pints of fluid as well, mostly water but including weak tea, herb teas, natural fruit and vegetable juices and not more than two cups of coffee.

Bean and root vegetable casserole

1 large leek 1 large onion 3 cloves garlic 3 tbsp rapeseed oil 1 swede 1 large parsnip 2 carrots 1 medium sweet potato About 700ml (1 1/4 pt) vegetable stock 400g tin chopped tomatoes 3 tbsp tomato puree 400g can broad beans Sprig of rosemary and 6 sage leaves.

  1. Slice the leek, chop the onion and garlic. In a large saucepan, heat the oil and sweat all three, stirring continuously, for 3 mins.
  2. Peel the parsnips, carrots and sweet potato and cut into cubes. Add to the pan and stir to coat thoroughly.
  3. Add the stock, tomatoes and tomato puree and bring to the boil. Add herbs, cover and simmer for 45 mins.
  4. Drain the broad beans, rinse thoroughly and add to the pan Continue to simmer until beans and vegetable are all tender (about 10-15 mins)

Green pasta with tuna

450g (1lb) green tagliatelle 6 spring onions, coarsely chopped including green parts 1tbsp olive oil 400g (14 oz) tinned tuna in oil Handful shredded basil leaves Black pepper

  1. Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions. Meanwhile, put the oil in a frying pan and very gently fry the spring onions till soft.
  2. Add the drained tuna and stir well until warmed through. Drain the pasta, return to the saucepan, and stir in the tuna and spring onion mixture.
  3. Serve sprinkled with the torn basil leaves and black pepper.

Apricot and almond crumble:

500g (1lb) apricots 2tsp sugar 2tbsp water 150g (6oz) porridge oats 50g (2oz) ground almond 1tbsp runny honey 1tbsp flaked almonds 25g (1oz) butter, cut into tiny pieces

  1. Preheat the oven to 200ºC/400ºF /gas 6. Lightly grease a pie dish.
  2. Put in the fruit - washed, and peeled or cut up if necessary. Add the sugar and the water.
  3. Mix the oats and ground almonds together and spread over the top of the fruit - there should be enough to make an inch thick coating.
  4. Drizzle the honey over the top. Scatter over the flaked almonds. Dot with the butter and put in the oven for 20 mins.
Senior Content Editor: Good to Know About me Hi there, I’m Nic Hopkirk – senior content editor for Good to Know. I’m a lifestyle journalist who has worked across newspapers and digital for nearly 20 years. After studying English Literature at Bristol University, I began my journalism career on local newspapers in South East London and Kent, before moving on to digital media at Emap. Since then I’ve worked for the Evening Standard, Daily Mail and MSN, where I was the Managing Editor for the Lifestyle group of channels for several years. After my two boys were born I decided to go freelance and have written for Good to Know, Woman, Woman & Home and Global Radio, as well as Marks & Spencer and Holland & Barrett. My specialist subjects Since becoming a mum, I’ve become a specialist in the subject areas of pregnancy, labour - and of course days out and activities with the kids. I am constantly on the look out for fun new things to do with my boys and while a true Londoner,  I also love going out to the countryside and exploring green open spaces. I’ve become a member of pretty much every organisation I can think of to enjoy time in the great outdoors together as a family and my purse is packed with membership cards for the National Trust, English Heritage, Kew, Royal Palaces - you name it. I also love a good outing to a castle, so naturally I’m also a member of our two nearest establishments - Leeds and Hever. I love cycling to work and when I get some me-time I also love a good shop - most of which is done online these days! I’m really looking forward to sharing all of my knowledge with Good to Know’s readers.