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Essential nutrition for healthy kids as they return to school

There are many factors of the modern age that go against children’s health,” says Elaine Joyce of health store Ylang Ylang in Westport, Co Mayo. “These include technology, convenience foods, stress and anxiety, some children eating different meals at different times to parents, poor quality of food, food with no nutritional value, too many sweets, sugary foods and drinks.”

“One in four Irish children is overweight or obese and is at an increased risk of disease throughout life,” says Paula Mee, Coru registered dietitian and Revive Active health expert. “Of those that are normal weight, an ultra-processed diet can lead to deficiencies of essential nutrients and an insufficient fibre intake. Many are spending too much time sitting and not enough time moving and playing. Parents’ food habits and the example they set, are vital to help reverse poor health outcomes.”

How can we give children a balanced diet?

“Introduce all foods to children at a young age,” says Elaine Joyce. “Ensure they eat a lot of fruit and vegetables and a moderate amount of carbohydrates and protein. Ensure children eat with adults to emulate healthy eating habits. Keep treats to a minimum. Get the children interested in food, nutrition, diet, wellbeing and mindfulness around eating, keep an eye on the portion sizes.”

“Meals should be enjoyed as a family where possible where every member of the family helps out,” says Liz O’Byrne, a nutritional therapist who works with health store the Aloe Tree in Ennistymon, Co Clare. “Meal planning is key and writing out the menu in advance each week helps parents see what is being consumed and what is not. For example, are they getting at least five portions of fruit and vegetables per day? Are they getting good quality protein with every meal? Are they getting oily fish a couple of times a week? Are they getting enough fluids - ideally water or milk? If treats are enjoyed, what is the frequency?”

“The best advice is to buy as much fresh food as you possibly can,” says Paula Mee. “It is best to avoid ultra-processed foods that have a poor fat, carb and protein profile and contain many different additives (like a frozen pizza). Educating children about food and the benefits of making healthy choices is a real priority. As children grow their tastes and palates develop.”

How can kids eat less processed foods?

“Feed children a diet of home-cooked food with plenty of good quality fats and protein,” says Liz O’Byrne. “Encourage lots of vegetables and fruit. Try new foods regularly. For fussier children create a reward chart to reach their goals of having five fruit and vegetables or trying out a new food. Talk to them about food and what their bodies require to be healthy. Tell them what foods their bodies love lots of, and what foods their bodies like just a little of.”

“Get children involved in preparation and cooking of food so they learn about the food, flavours, textures etc and it becomes enjoyable,” says Elaine Joyce, “get them used to tastes and texture and the benefits of good food from a young age.”

Do kids need vitamin supplements to stay healthy?

“Yes, if they have a poor diet, lacking in essential nutrients for growing bodies,” says Elaine Joyce. “If a diet is good then maybe consider a supplement in winter to boost the immune system and help with concentration and learning.”

“Ideally all vitamins should come from food,” says Liz O’Byrne. “But supplementing can be a good idea if you have a fussy eater. It can be a good idea on holidays or at times where you know they will not be eating their usual home-cooked food or as a boost after a period of sickness. Also, if your child doesn't eat fish, consider supplementing with cod liver oil.”

“If you have a very fussy eater who cuts out entire food groups, the advice is to seek the help of a dietitian and supplement the diet if necessary,” says Paula Mee. “It is important that children get a full complement of vitamins and minerals for their mental and physical development. The Food Consumption Survey showed that young children’s diets are lacking a wide range of vitamins and minerals. In short supply were the minerals calcium and iron, as well as vital vitamins A, C, folate, B2 and D.”

The healthy lunch box

“Most schools have healthy eating policies so children are not allowed to bring sugary foods and drinks to school,” says Liz O’Byrne. “Good quality protein is important to keep them full such as cheese, fish, hummus or meat and wholegrain carbohydrates such as bread, rice crackers, pasta or rice. Offer plenty of fruit and raw vegetables and water. Do a weekly menu so that they don't have the same lunch every single day.”

“Get children involved in making their school lunch,” says Paula Mee. “The goal is to pick one food from each of the four main groups.

A carbohydrate food (wholegrain as much as possible) – bread, wrap, pitta pocket, crackers, selection or rolls and baps.

A protein food (plant or animal) – hummus, chickpeas in pasta salad, eggs, natural yogurt-based dip, mixed seeds, sliced chicken, tuna. Avoid processed meats like ham or salami where possible.

A vitamin- and mineral-rich food – any fresh fruit that is easy to eat, dried fruit, fruit salads, carrot or pepper sticks, salad veg, veg soup.

A calcium-rich food – yogurts, small cartons of milk, cheese cubes.

Treat foods are occasional foods. Some schools do not allow them.

Filtered or tap water in their favourite water bottle is better than any energy drink. Give them a personal water bottle to take to school, the playing field or when travelling."

Omega-3 and Vitamin D

It's extra stressful to think about the return to the classroom this year. Whatever that will look like for your family, help to bolster your child's brain health and immunity with omega-3 and vitamin D.

Omega-3 essential fatty acids are considered essential because they are needed for optimal health but cannot be produced by our bodies, and therefore must be consumed daily through diet or supplementation. Often thought of as the building blocks of a child's body, supporting healthy growth and development, omega-3s also aid essential functions such as brain development and function and visual function. Without these important fats, it can become difficult for growing children to concentrate, learn new information, and balance their moods properly - all key aspects of fulfilling potential at school. Omega-3 DHA is present in oily fish (sardines, anchovies, mackerel, salmon), so unless your child is eating two to three portions of oily fish a week, an omega-3 food supplement is a must.

Vitamin D, also referred to as 'the sunshine vitamin', is well known for its role in building strong bones and teeth. In fact, it does much more than that though. Vitamin D is needed for a healthy immune system, helping the body to fight off infections and making it a very important supplement during back-to-school season. The Irish Osteoporosis Society has called on parents to keep vitamin D in mind, as some 88% of primary school children in Ireland have been reported to have intakes below the recommended amount. The human body is able to produce vitamin D3, but only after sufficient exposure to the UVB rays in sunlight, therefore deficiency is often an issue for people during the winter months, when sunlight is in short supply.

Super vitamins and minerals

A good multivitamin: will provide plenty of B vitamins and magnesium for energy, vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc for immunity, calcium, magnesium and potassium for bone health and trace minerals for overall health and vitality.

Probiotics: a child’s digestive system needs adequate levels of good bacteria to ensure optimal digestive health. Certain bacteria actually help the body to digest food properly and help to defend it from stomach upset and infections.

Vitamin D3: crucial for a child’s health and development – it helps the body absorb minerals like calcium, builds strong teeth and bones and helps regulate the immune system.

Calcium: crucial when children are growing bones and teeth. Kids who do not get sufficient calcium and vitamin D are at increased risk of rickets.

Magnesium: sleep problems can be caused by a child being low in magnesium. Magnesium is found in green vegetables, nuts and legumes, seafood and wholegrain cereals.

Iron: required for oxygen transport in the body, energy production, cell and tissue growth, and the synthesis of brain chemicals for mood balance.

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