Back to school nutrition
A round-the-clock guide for the new term
As children prepare to go back to school this September in the wake of the pandemic, it has never been more important to look after their health, wellbeing and immunity. Nutrition plays a vital role in this; however, the school day can mean a loss of control over what children eat and a different routine after the summer holidays.
Olga Preston, a registered nutritional therapist at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition’s Brain Bio Centre who also specialises in children’s nutrition, has prepared her top tips for round-the-clock nutrition when the new term begins. She says: “Remember every child and young adult is different and a personalised approach to healthy eating is essential. Establishing a routine that works for your family is key. From morning until night, these tips should help you formulate a nutritional approach that works for you.”
It’s a well-known fact that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and Olga explains why it is especially important for children. “Breakfast sets up your blood sugar levels for the day, and in turn this impacts the ability to pay attention and learn, so it’s vital for children going to school. Rather worryingly, most children in the UK have had more than half the recommended amount of sugar before getting to school and missing breakfast is associated with a 30% shorter listening span. Too much sugar can lead the body to release high amounts of insulin and ultimately a crash of energy and a craving for more sugar. You should opt for breakfast options which are high in protein such as porridge oats with nut butter, eggs or baked beans, or some falafels with humous or chicken breast.”
“Choice of snack is really important,” says Olga. “So, for example if your child is competing in a sports event, try to avoid things with a high fat content because they take longer to digest and instead choose protein and carbohydrates. A small tuna or chicken sandwich would be good, and berries, bananas or apples are also great choices.”
This is the time when parents may lose all control of what children are eating or, as is often the case, not eating. Olga advises: “Remember that breakfast, snacks and your evening meal are all opportunities to give your children healthy, balanced options that you can control. If you know your child isn’t a fan of school dinners and is continually coming home hungry, make sure they eat a satisfying and filling breakfast, which means it might be necessary to increase what they have at this time.
“When you pick them up from school, make sure you have a healthy snack prepared so they can immediately satiate their hunger. Smoothies are a brilliant way to incorporate lots of vitamins and minerals, as well as good sources of omega-3, which are important for brain health, for example chia seeds, flaxseeds and pumpkin seeds.”
“This is your opportunity to give children a healthy meal packed with essential fats, vitamins and minerals. The essential fats, omega-3 and omega-6, are both needed for healthy brain function. Good sources of omega-3 include oily fish such as salmon, which the government recommends we eat at least once per week, as well as eggs and seeds for omega-6.
“Make sure their evening meal is packed with lots of vegetables for all the essential vitamins and minerals, although, bear in mind this may not always be their main meal. Always aim for at least five portions daily. Also avoid bad fats, which are hydrogenated trans-fat found in processed foods such as cakes, pastries, frozen pizza and fried foods.
“Remember that half your plate should be a variety of vegetables, a quarter should be unprocessed protein such as fish or chicken, and the remainder should be healthy fats such as avocado, nuts and seeds and finally whole grains such as brown rice, oats or barley.”
“And so to bed! Sleep is essential for everyone and school children ideally need between nine and 13 hours per night. Olga comments: “If your child doesn’t sleep very well, cut out sugar and ensure they are getting enough magnesium, which is helpful for sleep. Good sources of magnesium are dark, leafy vegetables, chickpeas and whole grains.
“Finally, remember never restrict a child’s diet without the supervision of a health professional because every food source has specific nutrients that would need to be replaced to ensure good health.”
 Source: Public Health England