The right food at the right time can make a difference in everything you do. When you learn for a test the right food choice can either help or hurt.
What are the best foods to eat while studying and preparing for an exam? While studying stay healthy, avoid junk food and drink water. Food choices vary depending on the study-time. The day before the test eat healthily and light, avoid spicy and gas-forming food. During the exam try to avoid eating altogether but for long tests rely on silent, non-smelling, one-hand protein-rich snacks.
The food you consume during exam time should help to increase focus, improve your mood, reduce anxiety and keep you alert. The different stages of test preparation have different requirements for your nutrition intake.
The most important essential food not only for exams but in general is of course water (Read the related question section below why I include water in food). When you study for exams you need to stay hydrated to keep your focus and alertness. A good guideline is 0.5 liter per hour. To increase the supporting effect squeeze some citrus into your water. According to a study from “Physiology and Behaviour” scents of the essential oils from orange and also lavender improve alertness, mood and reduce anxiety.
- Hard-boiled eggs – One of the best snacks ever – probably with a bit of Dijon mustard – protein rich and filling.
- Smoothies – One can’t go wrong with some fresh fruit – in particular berries and kiwi. Mix with low-fat yogurt, honey, a bit of cinnamon and some protein powder.
- Students food – At least that is how we call it is a mixture of nuts and dried fruits. Something to chew on. If you are interested, read here about the influence of chewing gum and learning.
- Salami and cheese cubes – Probably the Italian version of preparing for an exam – together with a nice espresso to charge your batteries.
- Celery and Carrots in cream cheese – Not really my personal favorite. My wife swears on it. Healthy and noisy.
- Protein wrap – You can find a turkey example recipe below. During test preparation, I prefer it with roasted chicken, onion and cheese variation like blue or feta cheese.
While you are learning for a test in particular after your daytime job preparing meals can take up a lot of time you could better use for study. So if you don’t have a lovely someone to provide you with food you need to rely on quick recipes (or frozen food). I usually do both. I pick a “cooking day” – mostly Saturday where I precook meals and freeze them. The advantage is one-time shopping, slicing, cooking and be done with it. These dishes are usually stews of some kind, a nice curry or soups (especially in winter). For the fresh part, I go with a salad and all kinds of toppings like tuna, salmon, chicken or cheese and ham.
Here is my favorite recipe for a delicious Hungarian stew:
- 1 lb of beef, make sure it is not too lean
- 2-3 tbsp oil for frying
- At least one clove of garlic
- 1 minced large onion
- 1 bell pepper
- 2 tbsp sweet paprika powder
- 1 large (fresh) or canned tomato
- 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
- Salt and pepper
- The preparation is quite simple. First, saute the onions in oil until they are softened, add garlic and bell pepper, continue for another 5 minutes and for the last 30 seconds add the paprika powder so it gets roasted. Put aside.
- Add some more oil to the (same) pan and fry the meat until it has a nice roasted brown color on all sides. Now add a 4-5 cups of water (For a stronger taste I sometimes use broth or/and a glass of red wine) as well as the vinegar. Make sure the meat is nearly covered in liquid.
- Add the onion mix back in and simmer for 1.5 to 2 hours an low heat.
This amount is for around 4 servings, I sometimes double everything so I always have a portion of goulash in my freezer.
If you prefer to study in the evening according to a research from the University of Rochester fruit delivers the best energy between 7:45 and 9:45. Still, keep in mind that a good nights sleep beats everything so
One day before the exam
There are really delicious dishes that unfortunately make you (or others) suffer the next day. You really want to avoid these on the day before your test because on exam day your focus should be on relaxing rather than dealing with your body.
Since we talked about water above already let me quickly mention a no-brainer: No alcohol. No, not even a small “Good night drink” to help you fall asleep. The day before your test you need to ensure that your food choice supports the best quality sleep you can possibly get. This means before you go to bed avoid the following:
- Stop drinking coffee 6 hours before bedtime
- No water 2 hours before bed
- No alcohol the whole day
- The average time to break down food is about 3 hours, you want your stomach to finish its work before going to sleep.
For a good night sleep the following 3 dishes worked best for me as an early dinner – easy to prepare, light and healthy:
Ingredients for 1 wrap:
- 1 whole wheat tortilla
- 2-4 slices of turkey
- 1 tablespoon of cream cheese
- 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard
- 2 tablespoons shredded cheddar cheese
- 1 medium sliced tomato
- Finely chopped lettuce
Now just mix the cream cheese and mustard and spread it on the tortilla. Put the turkey on top and add lettuce, tomato, and the cheese. Roll the tortillas tightly and cut them if half (diagonal). If I have I sometimes add cooked ham or bacon. Preparation time is 20 minutes tops – and it’s my super delicious alltime favorite.
Nuts ‘n fruits
This is not really a recipe but it worked really well especially when I started to take regular exams and was still quite nervous. Prepare a bowl of almonds and walnuts and peel 2-3 kiwis and cut them in slices. You will most likely still review your study notes during dinnertime so use the bowl of nuts to calm your nerves and finish your test preparation by enjoying the sweetness of sliced kiwis.
Walnuts and almonds are proven to have a lot of health benefits, especially healthy fats. According to a study with rats, almonds increased the sleep quality and duration.
Kiwi is a very nutritious and low-calorie fruit with a lot of vitamin C. A four weeks study with 24 adults participants that eat 2 kiwis about an hour before bedtime fell asleep 42 more quickly. 13% of them even slept longer and 5% reduced the amount of waking up.
Whole grain serial and milk
The carbs of the cereal and the calcium of the milk are
Foods to avoid
The following foods should be avoided for dinner:
- Dark chocolate (contains caffeine, keeps you awake at night)
- A glass of wine or beer (alcohol decreases you sleep quality)
- Burger, Pizza (Too heavy with the wrong kind of fat)
- Red Bull, coffee or any other kind of stimulant that might keep you awake
- Onions, beans or other gas producing ingredients
- Garlic rich dishes
- Spicy food
The breakfast on exam day
Probably the most important meal to consider. As I mentioned in my article “17 Tips for your Exam Day to Take Home your Certificate” a breakfast that supercharges your batteries is crucial for your success. Don’t eat (or drink) too much but enough to not feel hungry, even if you are so nervous that you don’t feel like eating. Omega-3 fatty acids for concentration and memory and protein for mental acuity and motivation is the way to go. For Omega-3 fats immediately salmon comes to mind – considered brain food for more than 2000 years. As an alternative to my other post about the exam breakfast I present my scrambled salmon eggs (for 1 person):
- 2-3 eggs (depending on the size)
- 2 slices of smoked salmon, cut in small pieces
- 1 tbsp cream cheese
- salt and pepper
- 1 teaspoon of butter
- Spring onions (optional)
Mix the eggs in a bowl. Heat up the butter on medium heat and pour in the eggs. Take your spatula and gently move the eggs from the inside to the outside of the pan and let the liquid pour back to the center. Just before the eggs are done put the salmon pieces inside, stir gently and switch off the heat. Season with salt and pepper and wait for a minute. Put everything on a plate and place the tablespoon full of cream cheese on top. Garnish with some finely chopped spring onions.
During the exam
What absolutely worked best for me is not to eat anything during an exam. I always find that very annoying hearing other people chewing or opening their wrapped snack bars. If an exam is extremely long you might take a small energy boost with you – when I was sitting in a 4h exam my stomach was growling which not only disturbed me but probably other. So here are my recommendations:
Exam time less or equal 1 hour
Take a small bottle of water, Don’t bring any food – if you had a healthy energy breakfast you should be just fine.
Exam time between 1 and 3 hours
My recommendation is still to just bring water. If you can choose the exam time and target a time around 9 or 10 in the morning the test will be over around lunchtime.
More than 3 hours
When you are sitting for one of those marathon exams an energizing snack might be very welcome not only to refuel your brain but also to stop your stomach from crying for food. There are a couple of things to consider when picking snacks during a test:
- Ready to use
- One-hand friendly
- Without smell
- Protein rich
Whatever you bring should be ready to eat with one hand. Don’t pack a Yoghurt where you have to mix in cereals or fruits and then eat it with a spoon. Eating should never become a focus during a test, keep one hand free so you can continue navigating the questions or writing something down. Keep it simple.
A quiet and non-smelling meal is not only a courtesy to others. If you don’t want to disturb your classmates but “accidentally” packed a garlic bread wrapped in crackling foil your focus will shift to not making a sound rather then the questions in front of you. Even worse if you get some angry stares from non-garlic lovers next to you which brings down your mood – and bad feelings bring down your performance. So what to eat then? There are a few options that fit the criteria above:
- Boiled eggs
- Cheese (I prefer small cubes)
- Protein bars (you can unpack them before the test and put them into a small plastic lunch box)
The best advice is to simulate the exam day as good as you can. Pick a good simulation software and prepare a practice test, then sit down at the same time you booked your exam and try it out. Be prepared that no food or drinks are allowed during the test. And even if your research about the exam conditions reveal that you can bring something to eat you might never know what the test center itself decide. If they ask you to leave everything personal in a locker just be fine with it, don’t depend on food, make sure you come energized and well fed.
After the exam
This is an easy one! Eat whatever you like, reward yourself with a visit to your favorite restaurant. Drink a glass of champagne and celebrate your success.
Should I use caffeine pills during an exam? To give yourself a wake-up boost those pills are a great during long tests. Read about how caffeine can help you in this article on how coffee improves your focus.
Is water classified as food? Let’s look at the definition of food from the Oxford dictionary: “Definition of food – any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink or that plants absorb in order to maintain life and growth.” Pure water does not contain any fat, carbs or calories. Water from the tap or bottles usually includes absorbed minerals like calcium, magnesium or fluoride so according to the definition, water can be considered food.
Does studying burn a lot of calories? Unfortunately not. If that were the case heavy thinkers or programmers like me should be in perfect shape without doing any exercise or proper diet. Though thinking is my daily business I gain weight when I don’t move or eat the wrong things. Scientists estimated that heavy thinking increases the calorie consumption by 20 to 50 (e.g. 1 large boiled egg has 78 calories). Thinking yourself slim? Think again!
Does studying make you hungry? Yes, it does. Unfortunately, as we have just seen you do not burn more calories but according to a Canadian study intense thinking causes fluctuations in glucose and insulin levels. These fuels neurons and when the level gets too low the brain gains a signal to get a refill. So despite doing hard work in the long run studying makes you gain weight.