Maybe you studied really hard for your exam, or maybe you procrastinated and are doing some last minute cramming while simultaneously hoping the test just gets canceled altogether. Either way, you will want every advantage possible going into that test to feel and perform your best- including the food your body is using as fuel!
The best foods to eat before a big exam include oatmeal with berries, fruit with nut butter, a veggie and bean burrito, a fruit and veggie protein-packed smoothie, trail mix, Greek yogurt with fruit and toast, Cheese cubes, deli ham, and bell pepper slices, and rice cakes with nut butter and bananas.
It is important to not go into an exam hungry or overly full. It is best to get a balanced meal with lots of different food groups and a combination of carbohydrates, protein, and fat at least a few hours before your test. You may need an additional snack in the hour or so before your test or even during the test if it is allowed!
Read on for more information about the best foods to eat before you take a test, what to eat for breakfast before an exam, whether or not to have caffeine before a test, and the best nutrition tips for test takers!
What Foods are Best to Eat Before You Take a Test?
It is important to remember that everyone’s body is a little bit different and responds to foods in different ways. While there are general nutrition principles that everyone can follow, you still might need to make some adjustments specific to your body and your needs.
I think the most important thing to focus on when eating before a test is to aim for a combination of macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Carbs are your body’s main source of energy, and your brain especially loves carbohydrates when it is taking a test. Protein and fat do other important things for the body, but one of their main purposes is to slow down your digestion to sustain your energy levels for longer. This is important for test-taking because you definitely don’t want to experience an energy crash in the middle of your exam!
My recipe for a healthy and helpful pre-test meal or snack is to choose a good source of carbohydrates and then pair it with something that has some protein and fat. Some good sources of carbohydrates include fresh fruit, crackers, pretzels, rice, pasta, bread, bagels, tortillas, milk, yogurt, popcorn, dried fruit, juice, potatoes, etc. Foods containing fat and protein include string cheese, nuts, peanut butter, chicken, tuna, seeds, beef jerky, deli meat, greek yogurt, cottage cheese, etc.
Best Pre-Exam Meals for Memory and Brain Performance:
- A tuna packet with whole wheat crackers or bread
- Hummus with pita chips and carrots
- A homemade fruit and veggie protein-packed smoothie
- Fruit with Greek yogurt and homemade granola
- Rice with veggies and lean meat
- PB&J sandwich
- Dried fruit and nut trail mix
- Baked potatoes
- Cottage cheese and peaches
It is not a great idea to go into a test super hungry or super full. Unfortunately, test anxiety can cause changes in appetite- some people lose their appetite altogether, while others eat emotionally and overeat past what their body needs. Work on dealing with your stress in other ways such as deep breathing, meditation, exercise, or getting some fresh air.
As you work through the emotions you are feeling, you will likely be a bit more mindful as you eat. Remember that eating is one of the ways you are nourishing your body and getting yourself ready to take your exam!
What Foods Should I Avoid Before a Test?
We all have our foods that make us feel a little sluggish or icky after we eat them. If you know of any foods like that, before a test is probably not the time to be eating those! If you have allergies or intolerances to foods like gluten or dairy, before a test is not the best time to be eating those foods either.
Additionally, eating a lot of high sugar foods right before a test might make you feel energized for a minute, but will probably lead to a crash not long after. Does that mean you need to avoid anything with carbohydrates in it? Absolutely not! Just make sure you have some protein and fat to balance out that meal and keep your blood sugars stable!
Eating foods that you don’t normally eat could also cause problems. For example, consuming a meal extremely high in fiber when you don’t typically eat a lot of fiber might have you feeling constipated or needing to use the bathroom during your test. Stick to a balanced, healthy meal or snack that you know will make you feel good and not bother your stomach.
What Foods to Avoid Before a Test:
- Sugary foods (desserts, treats, candy, sugary cereals, sugary beverages, granola bars, donuts and pastries, chocolate etc.)
- Greasy, fried foods, and fatty foods (french fries, pizza, fried chicken, potato chips, fatty meats, bacon, etc.)
- Caffeine and other stimulants and supplements
- Foods high in fiber if you normally don’t eat enough fiber
- Gassy foods (beans, cabbage, broccoli, etc.)
- Artificial sweeteners and non-nutritive sweeteners
- Carbonated beverages
- New foods (don’t start a new diet or eating plan yet)
What to Eat for Breakfast on the Day of a Test
If your mom tells you to make sure you eat a good breakfast the day of your big test, you better listen to her advice! Eating a good breakfast really gets your body and mind set up for success the rest of the day. In fact, eating breakfast has been connected to a number of benefits including:
- Appetite regulation throughout the day
- Higher energy levels
- Better focus and concentration at school
- Better test scores
If you are a chronic breakfast skipper, your body will probably need some time to adjust to eating in the morning. If you know you have a test coming up, start preparing by eating breakfast in the days and weeks leading up to get your body used to having fuel in the morning. Notice what kinds of foods sit well with you at breakfast and make you feel good throughout the day.
A Dietitian’s Recommended Breakfast Foods Before a Big Test
- Oatmeal with nut butter and berries
- Greek yogurt with fruit and whole wheat toast
- A homemade protein-packed smoothie (made with Greek yogurt, nut butter, nuts, seeds, frozen fruit/vegetables, and your choice of milk) and a whole wheat muffin
- Cheese cubes, deli ham, and bell pepper slices
- Egg omelet with half a bagel
- Rice cakes with nut butter and sliced bananas
- Homemade granola with milk or yogurt
- Breakfast burrito
If eating in the morning makes you feel nauseous, I suggest starting with liquids and just doing what your body can handle. Sometimes chocolate milk, a fruit smoothie, fruit juice, a protein shake, or a combination of multiple drinks are a little bit easier for your body to handle first thing in the morning.
Should I Have Caffeine Before Taking a Test?
So what is the deal with caffeine? You might wonder about grabbing a coffee or energy drink before a test for a little caffeine boost. It may make you feel more alert temporarily but caffeine can have a lot of negative side effects including:
- Upset stomach
- Trouble sleeping
- Irregular heartbeats
- High blood pressure
- Increased stress on the adrenal system
I like to think of caffeine as kind of a “fake” energy. It is throwing your system into overdrive, but it isn’t actually providing real energy (AKA carbohydrates) that your body needs. It is much more beneficial to rely on carbohydrates for energy!
Many people become reliant on caffeine to compensate for something else that is missing in their diet. Usually, as you institute good nutrition and regular, balanced meals and snacks, the need for caffeine naturally decreases because your body is actually getting what it truly needs!
Best Nutrition Tips Before Exams
If you have exams coming up and don’t really know what to do about your nutrition, here are some of my top tips. A lot of these nutrition principles can also be applied to days that you don’t have a test!
- Eat regularly and balanced throughout the day. Regardless of what time your test is, start out the day with a good breakfast and eat something every few hours to keep your energy levels up.
- Balance meals and snacks with a variety of food groups and nutrients. Include a good source of carbohydrates every time you eat and pair it with some protein and fat for sustained energy.
- Don’t try out anything new or out of the ordinary on test day. Stick to what your body is familiar with to avoid any tummy troubles or unwanted trips to the bathroom.
- Ask about bringing a snack into your test. If it is allowed, keep a balanced snack with you in case you start to feel your energy levels decreasing. This is especially important during long tests because your brain is burning through a lot of energy and it needs to stay well-nourished!
- Hydrate well in the days leading up to the test, but don’t chug tons of liquids right before you start your exam. It is likely helpful to keep a water bottle with you during your test so that you can continuously sip on some fluids and stay hydrated.
Thankfully, nutrition principles for eating before a test are actually pretty simple and straight-forward. There is no magic formula, instead, there is a lot of individuality and figuring out what works best for your body. Just like you have to study for your test, you also have to practice and experiment with your eating to know what gives you the most energy and helps you feel your best – you might not figure it out perfectly on the day of your test so give yourself time to really connect with and understand your body!
While good nutrition habits can give you an advantage when test-taking, remember that there are other important factors as well. Make sure you are doing your best to learn the material, practice test-taking strategies, get enough sleep, and handle stress and test anxiety. If you are doing all of that in addition to practicing good nutrition, you will be all set to do your very best on your test. Good luck!
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Ellis E. 5 Reasons Your Teen Needs Breakfast. Eatright.org. Published September 24, 2021.
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