Nutrition and Children

Nutrition and children

Although their growth is slower than in infancy, school-aged children still have high nutritional needs but fairly small appetites. So it's crucial all meals and snacks continue to be rich in nutrients and energy. The food choices children make during the crucial years of development can influence their future health risk and can also influence food habits in later life.
A structured eating plan with regular meals and snacks is important to establish good eating habits. Ensure there's also plenty of variety - burgers and chips are fine occasionally, but not for every meal.
A limited number of foods makes it difficult to obtain the full range of nutrients. Make sure your child has a range of foods based on each of the main food groups.

Energy

School children still have a high energy requirement for growth and activity, but increasing numbers are becoming overweight. This is because they’re eating too many calories and not being active enough to use up the extra energy they’ve eaten.
If you think your child is putting on too much weight, don't make a big issue of it. Instead, encourage physical activity in whatever form (football, netball, walking the dog, cycling, swimming and so on).
Base meals and snacks on the five main food groups, but limit fatty and sugary snacks.
An overweight child still needs a nutrient-packed diet that provides all the essential building blocks for growth and development. Encouraging healthy eating should ensure children maintain a healthy weight. Make sure the whole family is eating healthily to provide good role models.

Calcium

This mineral is important for healthy bone development. Good sources include dairy products such as milk, cheese, yoghurt and fromage frais, as well as fortified orange juice, green leafy vegetables, cereals, sesame seeds and tofu.
Your child should ideally aim for three servings of calcium-rich food a day - for example, a 150ml glass of milk, a small pot of yoghurt and a small matchbox-sized piece of cheese.

Folate

This vitamin is important for growth, but intake is low in some children, especially those who skip breakfast because fortified cereals are a good source of folate. Other sources include bread, green leafy vegetables and pulses.

Iron

This mineral helps to keep red blood cells healthy. Insufficient iron intake can lead to iron-deficiency anaemia, but this is much less common in primary school–aged children than their younger and older siblings.
Good sources of iron include red meat, liver, fortified breakfast cereals, beans and pulses.
To help absorb the iron more effectively from non-meat sources, combine it with vitamin C-rich foods such as citrus fruits and fruit juice.

Fatty and sugary foods

This group includes spreading fats (such as butter), cooking oils, sugar, biscuits, cakes, crisps, sweets, cream and ice cream, chocolate and sugary drinks. These foods shouldn't be eaten too often and, when they are, should only be consumed in small amounts.
They're loaded with calories, fat and sugar, and don't necessarily contain many vitamins and minerals. Also, sugary foods and drinks (including fruit juice) can increase the risk of dental decay.
Limit the amount of sugar and sweets eaten, and offer them at the end of meals, rather than in-between.
Some sugar-free or diet drinks can also cause decay because of their acidity. Milk or water is the best drink between meals.

School meals

School dinners in England are subject to strict nutritional guidelines, and other rules cover school tuck shops and vending machines. Primary schools now have to stipulate the vitamin content of school meals, and secondary schools need to do so from 2009.
The Scottish and Welsh governments are also developing legislation to tighten up on school dinner food choices.
Encourage your child to:
  • always choose foods rich in protein, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese or beans, but encourage them not to eat pies, pasties, sausages or burgers every day as these are very high in fat
  • choose at least one starchy food - bread, jacket potatoes, boiled potatoes, rice or pasta
  • eat at least one portion of vegetables – raw, cooked alone, or as part of a salad
  • eat a piece of fruit - fresh, dried or juiced

Ideas for packed lunches

It's easy to slip into offering your child the same food every day in a packed lunch. There are many types of bread that can add variety to sandwiches. Try pitta bread, chapattis, crusty rolls, muffins or bagels with one of these healthy fillings:
  • Chicken with a low-fat dressing and salad
  • Grated cheese and pickle
  • Bacon, lettuce and tomato
  • Tuna and tomato
  • Salmon and cucumber
  • Hummus and red pepper
Other suitable items include:
  • Fruit, both fresh or dried
  • Cheese cubes
  • Pot of yoghurt or a yoghurt drink
  • Cherry tomatoes or sticks of vegetables
  • Small pot of potato, pasta or rice salad
  • Hard-boiled egg
  • Fruit juice or soup in a flask

Snack ideas

Some children need a snack between meals, often around the time they arrive home from school. Encourage healthier options rather than filling up on crisps, savoury items or sweets. Try offering the following:
  • Crunchy muesli and yoghurt
  • Toasted crumpet or teacake
  • Fresh fruit
  • Low-fat yoghurt or fromage frais
  • Nuts, seeds or dried fruit
  • Small carton of milk
  • Fruit smoothies
  • Cheese and crackers or oatcakes
  • Slice of fruit loaf or malt loaf
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Key points

  • Base food for children around three regular meals with any additional snacks mid-morning and mid-afternoon or before bed. Discourage continuous grazing throughout the day.
  • Encourage a variety of foods from the main food groups.
  • Encourage your child to have healthy nutritious snacks rather than lots of fatty and sugary foods and drinks.
  • School meals and packed lunches are an important contribution to the day's nutritional intake. Encourage your child to make the right choices at school, or provide a healthy packed lunch as an alternative.
  • Encourage your child to be active. Coupled with a healthy diet, this will provide the foundations to good health and weight control in the short term and in the future.

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