The new school year. What should we be encouraging children to eat?

Dr Joan Ransley

Childhood is a time of learning and growth. Not only do children need to learn to read and write, but they also need to learn how to eat well so they can grow into healthy, social human beings. 

Over the last 50 years children’s diets have, for many, have become nutritionally poorer which has led to increasing levels of obesity, anaemia, the re-emergence of rickets, and high levels of tooth decay.

So, what are the key things to look out for when considering how to feed children?

Foods that provide the right sort of energy

Children need lots of energy to fuel their intense physical and mental development. The key here is choosing food that provides the right kind of energy. Wholegrain bread, cereals and plenty of fruit and starchy vegetables that also contain a rich mix of other important nutrients like dietary fibre, vitamins, and minerals. 

Highly palatable, over processed foods such as cakes, biscuits, savoury snacks, and confectionary provide a lot of energy but lead to ‘passive overconsumption’which easily leads to weight gain. Sweet foods can also increase the risk of tooth decay. 

Is your child getting enough iron? 

Dietary surveys have shown that many children do not consume enough iron in their diet. Low levels of iron can lead to tiredness, poor concentration and weakened immunity.

Only 15% of the iron eaten gets absorbed so it is important to include rich sources in the diet e.g. red meat, eggs and dark leafy vegetables. 

Bone building nutrients

Calcium and vitamin D have a huge role in growth and development of the muscular skeletal system. Any child that does not get enough vitamin D or calcium can develop rickets. Milk, cheese and cereals are good sources of calcium. 

Most vitamin D is obtained through exposure to sunlight but children spend a lot of time indoors so diet becomes an important source of this vitamin. Foods such as eggs, milk, oily fish and breakfast cereals are good sources. 

Fibre to make the gut work

Constipation is common in children. It can be painful, embarrassing, and uncomfortable. 

Increasing the fibre and fluid content of the diet can really help keep food moving through the gut which also helps to improve other aspects of health too. Good sources are fruit, vegetables, wholegrain cereals, nuts and pulses.

Watch out for salt

Salt in processed food is hidden. Often a food does not taste particularly salty, but the food label shows it is. High salt intakes are linked to the development of high blood pressure which can have a devastating effect on health. Children up to 6 years old should have a maximum of 3g per day while 10-year-olds should have no more than 5g. Once children get used to eating salty food it is quite difficult to retrain their palates. 

There are several ways to improve the way children eat and what they eat. Here are some ideas.

  • Be a good role model. Children take their lead from adults.
  • Make meals an enjoyable, sociable occasion.
  • Make fruit and vegetables available as snacks both at home and school.
  • Learn how to make nutritious milk shakes.
  • Leave gaps between meals so food can be properly digested, and children can learn to recognise when they are hungry and need to eat
  • Show children how to prepare fruit and vegetables e.g. how to skin and destone an avocado, peel a satsuma, prepare a mango hedgehog, make vegetable crisps  etc
  • Encourage eating nut butters and wholegrain crackers topped with fruit such as chopped banana or avocado.
  • Make food interesting by ‘growing’ activities such as sprouting seeds, growing a blueberry bush, and activities like ‘pick your own strawberries’.
  • Encourage children to prepare and cook simple meals e.g. an omelette or pancake and then include a filling e.g. mushrooms, spinach and grated cheese.

For more information on how to feed children


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