Healthy eating: What schoolchildren need

Healthy eating: What schoolchildren need

Find out how to give children aged 5-13 the best nutrition with our expert guide – from the importance of breakfast to healthy snacks, we have it all covered. 

Healthy eating: What schoolchildren need

Once your child is at school, they begin to have more opportunities to make their own decisions about what to eat. There is a marked increase in requirements for energy and protein at this age because they are growing quickly and becoming more active so providing a healthy, well-balanced, varied diet is important.

As well as being very active, the growth spurt begins as early as 10-11 years, so nutrient and energy requirements can be greater than those for adults relative to their body weight. Children’s meals need to include a variety of foods in order to meet their nutritional needs.

Children should be encouraged to:

  • eat a variety of nutritient-dense foods
  • eat plenty of vegetables, legumes and fruit – as many different colours as possible
  • eat starchy carbs (such as cereals, bread, rice, pasta and noodles), preferably wholegrain
  • include lean meat, fish, poultry and/or alternatives e.g. nuts or legumes
  • include reduced fat milks, yogurts, cheeses and or alternatives
  • choose water as their main drink

Care should be taken to:

  • limit saturated fat and moderate total fat intake
  • choose foods low in salt
  • consume only moderate amounts of sugars and keep to guidelines on foods containing added or 'free' sugars

Why breakfast is important for your child

Mornings can be chaotic and as a parent you can be pushed for time getting everyone ready for school as well as sitting down to eat breakfast. But the first meal of the day is very important for schoolchildren and should not be missed. Studies have repeatedly shown that children who eat breakfast have far higher vitamin, mineral and fibre intakes and are better nourished, which helps them to focus in the classroom.

How to get the best breakfast into your child's diet

The best breakfasts for children are rich in slow-release energy from granary bread, cereals, porridge oats, nuts and fruit. Children of this age are mature enough to cope with wholegrain versions of these carbohydrate-rich foods. It’s best to choose an unsweetened, simple, wholewheat or oat-based cereal, which you can add fruit to for sweetness, instead of those laden with sugar.

Healthy breakfast recipes

  • Apple & blueberry bircher
  • Dippy eggs with marmite soldiers
  • Seven-cup muesli
  • Peanut butter & banana on toast

Why lunch is important for your child

Whether it’s a packed lunch or something hot, lunch is an integral part of the day. The school day is long and energy demands are high, both physically and mentally – it's often at this time that hunger strikes, moods dip and the ability to concentrate wanes. What our children have for lunch needs to be nourishing and provide a good source of energy to last throughout the afternoon. Eating too much at this time or a lunch that is high in fat or sugar can leave children sleepy or struggling with tummy ache. Banish these symptoms by choosing foods for your child’s lunchbox that are nourishing and sustaining enough to get them through the day but not too heavy to leave them lethargic.

How to get the best lunch into your child's diet

Knowing where to start can be tricky, but as with all meals, the ideal is to include something from each food group to replenish energy stores, provide protein for muscle strength, and fruit and vegetables for vitamins, minerals and fibre. The traditional choice for lunchboxes is usually a sandwich. Don’t simply default to white bread, the options in the supermarket aisles are plentiful…or you could even consider baking your own.

There is life beyond the sandwich! Try oatcakes or rye crackers with little pots of hummus or guacamole or tortilla wraps with cheese, beans or chicken laden with mixed salad leaves. You could also try a flask of soup or some leftovers from dinner the night before.

Do watch the salt as it is hidden in lots of packaged foods and too much is bad for anyone’s health. It also tends to make children thirsty, which could be a problem at school. Make sure your child is drinking enough water as a dehydrated child is far more likely to be a tired and grumpy one. About 6-8 cups of water a day is a good target to aim for.  Fizzy drinks should be for special occasions, as they act as a source of ‘empty calories’ and may lead to tooth decay.

School lunch ideas

  • Chicken, carrot & avocado rolls
  • Lemon & coriander hummus
  • Spicy chicken & bean wrap
  • Homemade bread recipes
  • More school packed lunch inspiration

Dealing with your child's tiredness

If you notice that your child is tired all the time, there might be a simple solution. Ensure they are getting enough exercise, as a lack of fresh air and being sedentary can make them feel tired. Exercise produces endorphins which lift mood and increase the metabolism, improving sleep as well. Lack of sleep is an obvious cause of fatigue, so check that the evening routine is not to blame. Anaemia (a lack of haemoglobin, that carries oxygen in the blood) causes children to be constantly tired, pale and possibly headachey. If you suspect your child may be anaemic, check with your GP who can diagnose it with a blood test.

Anaemia is usually caused by too little iron in the diet. Red meat is the best source of iron, as well as being a good source of protein and zinc. Other meats such as chicken and fish also contain iron, as do leafy green vegetables, legumes and enriched breakfast cereals and breads. Iron from these sources is not as well absorbed as the iron found in meat, but vitamin C increases iron absorption so adding fruit or other foods rich in vitamin C (such as tomato, broccoli or pepper) to iron-rich meals will increase the amount of iron absorbed. In contrast, tea, coffee and unprocessed bran can inhibit iron absorption so avoid offering these alongside a meal.  

Why fruit and fibre are important for your child's diet

Sometimes when children are going through a tough time at school – with exams for example, the body can exhibit this upset in their gut. They may complain of tummy ache, or have trouble going to the loo. Dig a little deeper into what might be going on before assuming it’s an allergy or intolerance. Many children do experience constipation – and dehydration can be one of the most common reasons, as can a lack of fibre. Fibre needs plenty of water to help it ‘bulk out’ the stool and stimulate the gut to move it through, so make sure you boost fibre and water in the diet or you can make constipation worse. Choose wholegrains, oats, quinoa, plenty of fruits and vegetables, lentils and beans.

How to get fruit and fibre into your child's diet

All fruits are great for kids but dried fruits do really pack some punches when it comes to fibre. You can buy small snack-size packs of prunes, apricots, figs and dates. Dried fruits are a great sweetener for cakes and making a puree can be a delicious accompaniment for pancakes, toast and ice cream. It’s easy to make your own by simmering the dried fruit in a little juice until softened. Don't forget though dried fruits are a concentrated source of sugars – so offer your child a small portion (about 30g or the amount that fits in their cupped hand). Combining dried fruit with nuts and seeds helps to moderate the effects of the fruit sugars and moderates energy levels.

Full of fibre recipes

  • Feel-good muffins
  • Fig, nut & seed bread with ricotta & fruit
  • Dried fruit energy nuggets
  • Fruit & nut breakfast bowl
  • Date & fig bread
  • Date & buckwheat granola with pecans & seeds

Why calcium is important for your child

Calcium is important for the development and maintenance of bones and teeth, nerve function, muscle contractions and heart function. Getting enough calcium (as well as nutrients like vitamin D) and exercise during childhood and adolescence is important for increasing bone mass to prevent osteoporosis in later life.

How to get calcium into your child's diet

Dairy products like milk, cheese and yoghurt are the major sources of calcium in a Western diet. Dairy products also provide valuable protein, and vitamins A , B1, B2 and B3. Children in this age group can opt for low or reduced fat dairy products which have similar protein, calcium and vitamin values to ‘full fat’ equivalents.

Children who do not eat dairy products, (e.g. vegans or those with diagnosed with lactose intolerance) will need to obtain calcium from a non-dairy source. Foods that contain useful amounts of calcium include: leafy green vegetables; wholegrain cereals and breads; canned fish (eaten with bones); legumes (e.g. kidney beans, chick peas, lentils); calcium-fortified soy products; and calcium-fortified breakfast cereals and juice.

Weight and your child

Sometimes it can be hard to tell if your child is overweight. Don’t be tempted to put your child on a weight-loss diet. Forcing an overweight child to go hungry can backfire, making them crave food even more. Children of this age are still growing, so try to maintain their weight while they continue to grow in height. This way they will grow taller without necessarily adding pounds, and their weight could move into a healthier range. One of the best ways to promote good habits is to set a good example. Involve them with the shopping, making lists, putting food away in the cupboards, preparing meals using different ingredients and, where possible, eating together as a family.

Healthy recipes for your child

  • Frying pan pizza
  • Spiced rice & lentils with cauliflower
  • Feel-good fish cakes
  • Spaghetti & meatballs with hidden veg
  • Quick pancake wraps
  • Rainbow rice

This article was last reviewed on 6 May 2016 by nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens.

A registered Nutritional Therapist, Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

All health content on is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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