Healthy eating: what school-aged children need
Find out how to ensure children aged five to 13 get the nutrition they need, from enjoying an all-important breakfast to healthy snacks, with our expert guide
Because children grow quickly and become more active at this age, there is a marked increase in requirements for energy and protein. That’s why providing a healthy, well-balanced and varied diet is as important as ever.
What does a balanced diet for schoolchildren look like?
As well as being very active, children aged 10 or 11 often have growth spurts, so nutrient and energy requirements are often greater than those for adults (relative to their body size). Children’s meals need to include a variety of nutrient-dense foods in order to meet these needs and that means including all of the main food groups that constitute a balanced diet. These are:
- Proteins, such as lean meat, fish, poultry and/or alternatives such as nuts or legumes
- Starchy carbs, such as cereals, bread, rice, pasta and noodles, preferably wholegrain
- Vegetables, legumes and fruit in as many different colours as possible
- Milk, yogurt, cheese and/or plant-based alternatives
- Fats and oils
Children should only consume moderate amounts of sugars – no more than 24g of ‘free sugars’ per day (that’s equivalent to six sugar cubes) for 7-10 year-olds. ‘Free sugars’ are those that we add to foods and drinks as well as the sugar found in fizzy drinks, fruit juice, cakes, biscuits, sweets, chocolate and breakfast cereals.
Is breakfast important for my child?
Yes, the first meal of the day is important 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 more effectively in the classroom.
Ideally choose a breakfast that is rich in slow-release energy from wholemeal toast, wholegrain cereals, porridge oats or nuts. Combine these carbohydrates with something protein-rich – such as nut butter, eggs, cheese or yogurt.
Children of this age are old enough to cope with wholegrain versions of fibre-rich foods. If your child opts for breakfast cereal, make it an unsweetened, wholewheat or oat-based cereal, which can be topped with slices of fruit for sweetness.
Healthy breakfast recipes kids will love
What is the best lunch for my 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 adequate energy to last the afternoon – eating too much or a meal that is high in fast-releasing carbs 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.
Knowing where to start can be tricky, but as with all meals, the aim should be to include something from each food group. The traditional choice for lunchboxes is a sandwich, but don’t default to white bread – the options in the supermarket are plentiful – and don’t forget there is life beyond the sandwich! Why not try oatcakes or rye crackers with little pots of hummus or guacamole, tortilla wraps with cheese, beans or chicken with mixed leaves. You could also try a flask of soup or upcycle leftovers from dinner the night before. Salt can be hidden in lots of packaged foods, like bread, and too many salty foods may make children thirsty.
Perfect packed lunch ideas
What drinks should my child have?
It is important for your child to be well hydrated, 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. Fruit-flavoured squash and other cordials should be kept to a minimum also because of their sugar content. High intakes of sugar-free squash and cordial can sometimes be associated with loose bowels.
More like this
The ideal drinks are milk and water – a 150ml glass of unsweetened juice or smoothie can count as one of your five-a-day but guidelines recommend these are limited to one glass per day.
What about fibre?
Many children experience constipation, and dehydration can be one of the most common reasons for this, 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.
What nutrients might my child be missing?
Calcium is important for the development and maintenance of bones and teeth, nerve function, muscle contractions and even heart function. Getting enough calcium (as well as nutrients like vitamin D) and exercise during childhood and adolescence is important for increasing bone mass and preventing osteoporosis in later life.
Dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt are the major sources of calcium in a Western diet. 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. Those who do not eat dairy products, (such as vegans or those diagnosed with lactose intolerance) will need to obtain calcium from non-dairy sources. Foods that contain useful amounts 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.
For more ideas, have a look at our vegan kids' recipes.
Most girls start their periods when they’re about 12 but they can start as early as eight so it’s important to be prepared. Although most people should be able to get all the iron they need from a varied, balanced diet. In the UK, iron deficiency is common, and particularly so among menstruating children, pregnant women and the elderly.
Iron deficiency may lead to anaemia and may cause your child to feel tired, look pale and sometimes suffer with headaches. If you suspect anaemia, check with your GP as they can diagnose this with a simple blood test. Red meat, chicken and fish contain iron, as do leafy green vegetables, legumes and enriched breakfast cereals and breads.
How do I know if my child is the right weight for their age, height and gender?
Your child will be weighed and measured at school as part of the National Child Measurement Programme. These measurements will be used to check they’re in the healthy weight range.
Don’t forget activity
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 too sedentary can lead to fatigue. Exercise produces endorphins that lift mood, increase metabolism and improve sleep.
Healthy recipes your child will love
Enjoyed this? Now read…
What’s your child’s favourite midweek breakfast? And what about lunches on a school day? Share your tips and tricks in the comments below.. .
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.