Nutrition for schoolchildren: A Q&A with Frankie Phillips
Concerned about your school-aged child's diet? Child nutritionist Frankie Phillips gets stuck into all of your parenting questions…
Frankie Phillips is a registered dietitian and leading child nutritionist. Frankie has experience of advising patients about their diets and has appeared on a range of TV and radio programs, she is currently working as part of the Organix No Junk Challenge.
We opened up the floor to our social audience, and you had questions on everything from food phobias to portion control… see all your questions and answers below.
Question: Our little girl (5yrs) seems to have gone off vegetables. She does eat fruit and we keep treats to a minimum and she is very active, will she be getting enough nutrition from just fruit?
Frankie says: Fruit and vegetables contain different vitamins and minerals, and the best way to get plenty of these is to have a wide variety – i.e. eat a rainbow! Have you tried raw vegetable sticks, as these can be quite appealing, especially with a dip like cream cheese or hummus. Try different coloured peppers and cucumber sticks, even raw broccoli and caulilflower. Or get her to help you choose, and prepare, a vegetable to put on top of a pizza. Try not to get into a battle about it – just offer and let her decide what to eat… but do keep offering!
Question: I cannot get my eight year old to eat fish. How critical is it? What is she missing and how can I substitute?
Frankie says: Fish is not critical to the diet, but it does provide some really useful nutrients in particular the oily fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines provide omega-3 fats, which are important for development as well as a healthy heart and circulation. If she doesn’t enjoy eating fish whole, perhaps she might try fish cakes, which you can make from mainly potato with just a little salmon.
Or try making a fish curry where the flavour is masked by the aromatic herbs and spices. If it’s still no-go, then ensure there are other sources of omega-3 fats such as seeds and nuts, as well as omega-3 fortified foods such as eggs, soya products and spreads.
Question: How can I avoid my children having too much salt in their diet? How much is too much, and how do I calculate it? They're four and six.
Frankie says: There are UK guidelines for how much salt (or sodium) children of different ages should eat. For a 4-6 year old it should be no more than 3g per day of salt in total – that’s including the salt already present in many processed foods. Most food labels now say how much salt is in a product, so you should be able to work it out quite easily, but as a rule of thumb, never add salt to children’s food, and avoid eating very salty foods such as bacon and other processed meats, smoked fish and cheese and savoury salted snacks. See a spotlight on… low-salt diets.
Question: My son is six. I worry about portion control for him as he can eat as much as me on some nights having already had an afternoon meal/snack at his afterschool club. How much should he be eating? He isn’t overweight at all but is very tall for his age (partly because his dad is 6'4").
Frankie says: Children’s appetites vary – a lot! Some days they seem to eat hardly anything, and others they seem to have ‘hollow legs’! If your son is otherwise growing well and his weight and height are roughly in proportion then it’s likely he’s getting about the right amount of food to grow, without getting overweight. Children this young often need snacks to keep up with the demands of activity and growth, but there are no hard and fast rules on portion size.
If you think he might be eating too much just put slightly less on his plate, and let him know that he can have a second helping if he’s still feeling hungry. Keep him active too and that will help him to grow and stay healthy while having a good appetite, and on those days when he doesn’t seem to eat much, just go along with it. Much as it may pain you to see food wasted, don’t make a child finish a plateful of food if they aren’t hungry.
A balanced diet
Question: What's a balanced diet for a nine year old?
Frankie says: Adults and children over the age of five can all aim for a healthy balanced diet. This means having your meals and snacks over the course of a week roughly being in proportion. Eating the same healthy meals together is a sure way to ensure that the whole family stays healthy. For children it really helps to see parents eating a good balanced diet too! And don’t forget that being physically active every day is part of getting that overall balance.
Question: A child in my class has an extremely limited diet. He drinks a chocolate flavour protein drink and eats pretzels every day for lunch. In the afternoon he has the same. He eats grilled chicken for supper, no veg or carbs. Very occasionally he will drink a fruit smoothie. He likes chocolate. He will not handle food in cookery sessions let alone eat it. Any suggestions?
Frankie says: I’m guessing you are a teacher, so it may be worth having a chat with parents to see if they have any concerns about their child’s food intake. I’m unclear what age the child is or if there are any growth issues, but there may be some underlying problem that needs to be addressed by professionals if this is indeed all that he is eating, as you rightly say, it is very limited. Some children struggle with sensory aspects of food – especially if they have not been introduced to a range of textures and tastes early in the weaning process.
Meat and protein
Question: My daughters don't eat beef, though they do eat pork, chicken and rabbit. Are they missing something? And the six year old eats more than the eight year old and there isn’t much height difference between them, is that normal?
Frankie says: It’s fine not to eat beef if your daughters prefer eating other meats – they will get a similar range of nutrients from other meats. Appetite can vary between children, and is also dependent on activity levels. Provided both of your girls are growing normally and are keeping active, they may simply be growing and developing at slightly different rates, so don’t worry about this, your eight year old might be about to start a growth spurt, which will make her taller than her sister again.
Got more than one child on your hands? You might also be interested in reading Frankie Phillips Q&A for teenagers and babies and toddlers.
Have you experienced difficulty in feeding a school-aged child? We'd love to hear your thoughts and opinions…