Dietitian Kerryn Wuth advises parents how to plan their children’s nutritional needs to boost their energy levels and help them cope better at school.
The school year might have just started, but are your children tired and lacking energy? Do they appear to be negative and irritable, are battling to concentrate, aren’t sleeping well or have lost their confidence?
Don’t underestimate the demands placed on school-aged children. It is enormous, and very often they are not appropriately supported to meet these high demands – leaving them exhausted both physically and emotionally.
Adequate nutrition is one effective way that you as a parent can help your child. Good food, and the right amount of food, goes a long way to support a child and help them to cope, thrive, excel and feel good about themselves. But, what does this translate to when packing lunchboxes and preparing meals?
It helps to understand – on a scientific level – how much children need to eat. Compared with an adult, a child’s food requirement is close to double an adult’s when calculated per kilogram of body weight. This is a huge volume of food every 24 hours, but it is needed to ensure and support the following: Survival, growth, concentration and activity.
So how do you ensure your child eats enough despite often being reluctant to eat?
Routine. Your child should be consuming nutrition up to six times a day and every two to three hours. This should include three meals (breakfast, lunch and supper) plus three snacks. This routine will depend on your child’s school and sport schedule, and needs to be structured and strategic. No two children are the same.
The bulk of their nutrition should come from their three meals, with the snacks topping them up to see them through to the next meal. Children are often given snacks that are too big and/or at the incorrect times, resulting in a reduced appetite at mealtimes.
Be targeted with what food is offered. A child needs to be given specific guidance on what to eat and when. Set strict boundaries and avoid offering “buffets” of food.
The one fundamental principle that must be applied – for most of the time – to what your child eats, is to provide them with foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. These have a higher nutrient density and do not contain harmful chemical additives. Do not be influenced by marketing slogans on convenience meal or snack options. All chemical additives in sweet and savoury foods negatively affect a child’s concentration, behaviour and energy levels.
Send an extra snack to have on the way to school. Kids leave the house early, so breakfast is sometimes at 5.30am. They then only eat again at school at about 10am. This is far too long for a child to go without nutrition. Narrow this gap, especially if they have early morning sport.
Children do not need a lot of variety and do not get as bored with food as adults do. There are only a handful of snacks that children should have on a daily basis – fresh and dried fruit, popcorn, nuts and nut butters, biltong, white cheese, and plain milk and plain cultured yogurt.
Avoid sweetened (or sugar-free) drinks as these will fill your child up and “replace” foods they should be eating. Water is all they need.
If in doubt, consider getting professional, age-appropriate advice and implement it consistently. Having a structured framework to work from will take the pressure off of you when planning meals as well as reassure you that your children are on track.
An established daily food routine that includes fresh, wholesome ingredients, will reward you with energetic, enthusiastic, successful and happy children.