Healthy eating: what schoolchildren need

Find out how to ensure children aged five to 13 get the nutrition they need, from all-important breakfast to healthy snacks, with our expert guide. 

Boiled eggs with marmite soldiers

Once your child is at school, they 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 children grow quickly and become more active, so providing a healthy, well-balanced, varied diet is important.

As well as being very active, growth spurts in children can begin as early as age 10 or 11, so nutrient and energy requirements are often 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 nutrient-dense foods
  • eat plenty of vegetables, legumes and fruit in as many different colours as possible
  • eat starchy carbs (such as cereals, bread, rice, pasta and noodles) that are preferably wholegrain
  • include lean meat, fish, poultry and/or alternatives such as nuts or legumes in their diet 
  • include milk, yogurt, cheese and/or alternatives in their diet 
  • choose water as their main drink

Care should be taken to:

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

Children aged seven to 10 should consume no more than 24g free sugars per day (equivalent to 6 sugar cubes). Free sugars are those found in fizzy drinks, fruit juice, cakes, biscuits, sweets, chocolate and breakfast cereals.

Why breakfast is important for your child

Mornings can be chaotic, and as a parent, you can be pushed for time when you need to get everyone ready for school. 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.

The best breakfast for children

Choose a morning meal that is rich in slow-release energy from granary bread, wholegrain cereals, porridge oats or nuts. Combine these carbohydrates with something protein-rich – such as nut butter, eggs, cheese or yogurt – to keep blood sugar levels balanced throughout the morning. 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 can be topped with fruit for sweetness, instead of those laden with sugar.

Peanut butter toastie

Healthy breakfast recipes

Why lunch is important for your child

Whether it’s a packed lunch or something hot, the midday meal 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. Lunch should be nourishing and provide energy to last through the afternoon – eating too much or a meal that is high in fat or sugar can make children feel sleepy or give them a tummy ache. Choose foods for your child’s lunchbox that will sustain them without being too heavy.

The best lunch for children

Knowing where to start can be tricky, but as with all meals, the aim should be to include something from each food group to provide energy, a source of protein for muscle strength and the necessary vitamins, minerals and fibre. The traditional choice for lunchboxes is a sandwich, but don’t simply default to white bread – the options in the supermarket are plentiful, or you could consider baking your own.

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

Be aware of salt content, which can be hidden in lots of packaged foods, as it tends to make children thirsty and could pose a problem at school. Make sure your child is drinking enough water, too, as a dehydrated child is far more likely to feel tired and grumpy. About six to eight cups of water a day is a good target. Fizzy drinks should be reserved for special occasions, as they are high in free sugars and may lead to tooth decay.

Chicken carrot and avocado wrap

School lunch ideas

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 lead to tiredness. Exercise produces endorphins that lift mood, increase metabolism and improve sleep. Lack of sleep is an obvious cause of fatigue, so check that their evening routine is not to blame. Anaemia (a lack of haemoglobin that carries oxygen in the blood) causes children to feel constantly tired, look pale and sometimes suffer with headaches. 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 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 – adding fruit or other foods rich in vitamin C (such as tomatoes, broccoli or peppers) 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

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 experience constipation, and dehydration can be one of the most common reasons along with 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. Serve wholegrains, oats, quinoa, plenty of fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, lentils and beans to increase fibre intake.

Fruit and nut bread with ricotta

Fibre-rich recipes

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 such as milk, cheese and yogurt are the major sources of calcium in a Western diet. These also provide protein and vitamins A, B1, B2 and B3. Children in this age group can opt for low- or reduced-fat dairy products that have similar protein, calcium and vitamin values to full-fat equivalents if they want.

Children who do not eat dairy products, (such as 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 (kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils), calcium-fortified plant-based milk and yogurt alternatives (such as almond, soya and oat-based products) and calcium-fortified breakfast cereals and juice.

Weight and your child

Sometimes it can be hard to tell if your child is overweight, but 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 in the food shopping, putting items away in the cupboards, preparing meals and, where possible, eating together as a family.

Healthy recipes for your child


This article was last reviewed on 14th October 2019 by Jo Lewin.

Jo Lewin is a registered nutritionist (RNutr) with the Association for Nutrition with a specialism in public health.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com 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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Comments, questions and tips

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Eddie Fisher
24th Feb, 2020
Oh my what a descrimatory article! Children (5 - 16) must receive a full time education by school or otherwise. Education Act 1996 section 7. Thousands of children do NOT go to school, however it seems that this only applies to school children. How rude to the vast and daily expanding home education community, the sick or poorly children etc. Maybe just say children!!!! Saying that most home educating families would know these facts anyway - we think out of the box and put our children's health first - one of the many reasons so many children are home educated. Oh and they tend to socialise more than school kids, and they cook together, eat together, meet up for tea etc. In fact our home ed group has monthly shared meals and we often cook with the children in the hall's kitchen. The variety of food that is shared is amazing - rarely will you see a sandwich but amazing salads, curries, snacks... Please think carefully! Thank you.
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