Schoolchildren and teenagers
Starting school gives children far more freedom in terms of which foods they eat. What’s more, children at this age start to grow quickly and their energy levels increase. As they enter adolescence, the nutritional demands of teenagers increase, so it’s important they continue to eat a healthy, balanced diet.
On this page, we’ll explore the nutritional requirements of schoolchildren and teenagers, including information on school dinners and packed lunches, and how to encourage them to make healthy choices.
Up until children reach the age of around five, parents will have had full control over their diet. When they start school, children will eat at least one meal outside of the home. They may even be given the freedom of choosing lunch themselves. Fortunately, there are Government food standards designed to promote healthy eating in schools. Children often establish similar eating patterns to their parents/caregivers, so it’s important that these habits are followed in the home, too.
Meeting the nutritional needs of schoolchildren is important in supporting their growth and development. At this age, children grow at a rapid rate. Growth spurts can start as young as 10 years old. This means that children’s energy and nutrient requirements are often higher than adults’ (relative to body weight).
Maintaining a healthy weight
Most parents will know that children need to be provided with nutrient-rich meals to help keep them fit and healthy. But despite this, childhood obesity is an issue that has been rising over the past few years. According to the House of Commons library, 12.1% of children aged four to five in the UK were overweight in 2021/22. 23.4% of 10 and 11-year-olds were obese in the same period. Alongside eating a balanced diet, it’s important to encourage your children to keep active to burn off the excess energy consumed in food.
If you have noticed that your child is putting on weight, try to encourage them to do more physical activity. Your child may not want to take part in extracurricular sporting activities such as football, hockey, or netball and that’s OK. Try suggesting alternatives such as dancing, trampolining, kickboxing or even cycling or swimming. You can make exercising fun by doing activities as a family, like kicking a ball in the park or walking the dog together.
School dinners and packed lunches
Any food provided by local authorities (such as school lunches) must meet the national nutritional standards. This means that children are provided with healthy and balanced lunches containing high-quality ingredients and at least two portions of fruit and vegetables with every meal. The guidelines also suggest that deep-fried food is limited to no more than two portions each week and that fizzy drinks, chocolate, crisps and other confectioneries are avoided.
Parents who don’t opt for school lunches will have the responsibility of providing their children with a packed lunch. If this is the case, try to keep things as interesting as possible and vary their lunches throughout the week. This might sound tricky to keep up with, but it can be as simple as swapping sliced bread for a bagel or pitta.
Other lunch box ideas tips include:
- Base lunches on bread, pasta or rice to keep kids fuller for longer.
- Freeze different types of bread to keep it varied throughout the week. This also prevents waste.
- Add a little lemon juice to fruit to stop it from browning.
- Try swapping crisps out for alternatives like popcorn or rice cakes.
Top tip: If you find yourself rushing to prepare your child’s lunch box in the morning, try packing it the night before or meal prep for the whole week. You can even get your child involved as a fun evening task to do together.
Nutrition tips for schoolchildren:
- Have three regular meal times a day with healthy snacks given mid-morning, mid-afternoon and between dinner and bedtime.
- Try to avoid consistent snacking and grazing throughout the day.
- Encourage your child to be physically active. Be supportive of any extracurricular activities they express an interest in.
- If you allow your child to buy their own lunch from school, try to educate them about healthy choices. Encourage them to choose the foods which will provide the highest nutritional value.
Adolescence is the time when teenagers can start making independent decisions about their own education, social life, and nutrition. Whilst this is a positive step, physiological changes, combined with peer pressure and insecurities, can mean good nutrition is left by the wayside.
A balanced diet is essential in supporting teenagers’ changing bodies and hormones. Early teen years mark the start of puberty. According to the National Library of Medicine, nutrition is one of the most important factors affecting pubertal development. It’s therefore vital that teens maintain healthy eating habits.
Sometimes, teenagers may refuse certain foods, skip breakfast, etc. In this situation, parents should try and set a good example by continuing to eat meals that are nutritious. Making sure the fridge is stocked with wholesome foods so that teenagers have healthy choices at home is also key.
A balanced approach to eating is crucial at this stage of life. You can talk to your teen about adopting the 80/20 rule, where the majority of their food intake i.e., 80% of the food they eat is nutritious, leaving 20% for occasional indulgences.
Nutrional therapist Karen Maude DipNT mBANT CNHC BA (Hons) on 'Healthy tips for teenage nutrition'
Healthy food choices
The teenage years are a period in which children tend to experience accelerated growth. They obtain a significant proportion of their adult height and weight in just a few years. Because growth during this time is so quick, the demand for certain nutrients is likely to increase. Ideally, teenagers should be incorporating the following nutrients into their daily diet for healthy growth and development:
Calcium - A calcium deficiency can result in weak bones or even osteoporosis later in life. Teenagers should be encouraged to reduce their intake of sugary foods which absorb calcium from the bones. Good sources of calcium include calcium-fortified cereal or juice, leafy green vegetables and dairy products like yogurt and milk.
Iron - Iron is key for making red blood cells which carry oxygen around our bodies. A lack of iron could cause fatigue or anaemia in some individuals so it’s important to maintain good levels. Iron intake is especially important in people who have periods, as it is lost during menstruation. Teenagers should try and obtain iron from foods such as nuts, chicken, red meat and enriched whole grains.
Protein - Protein is needed for muscle maintenance and growth. It can be easily obtained from a variety of foods. The majority of teenagers will be able to incorporate protein into their diet from meat, fish, dairy, beans and nuts.
Fruits and vegetables - Teens should be consuming at least five portions of fruit and veg per day.
Fluids - Drinking plenty of fluids is important for our overall health and well-being, particularly when doing a lot of physical activity. Teenagers should aim for six to eight glasses a day. The best fluids are water and low-fat milk.
Research by the Mental Health Foundation suggests that many teenagers, particularly girls, feel unhappy with their weight and have a distorted view of their body image. Other factors such as peer pressure and the way social media puts emphasis on body image can lead to some teenagers wishing to lose weight.
Common ways teenagers may lose weight include skipping meals, fasting and avoiding any snacks and sugary foods. Most of which are not actually healthy options.
If your teenager wishes to lose weight because they want to lead a healthier lifestyle, parents or caregivers should help them to do this sensibly and discourage ‘fad’ diets.
If you suspect the desire to diet is a result of a deeper underlying cause, keep an eye out for symptoms/behaviours that may indicate a disordered relationship with food or an eating disorder. Signs to look out for include a preoccupation with nutrition, compulsive exercising, depression or anxiety and frequent visits to the bathroom.
If you are worried your child may have an eating disorder, express concern in a supportive manner. Pay a visit to your GP or practice nurse, who will be able to provide you with confidential information and advice about the next steps. You may also wish to consider counselling which can be an extremely supportive and effective treatment option.
Finding a professional
As a parent or caregiver, it can feel overwhelming when trying to provide your child or teenager with all the nutrients they need. If you are finding it difficult to maintain healthy habits (especially if you have a family with children of different ages) you may benefit from chatting with a nutritional professional. You can find a qualified nutritional therapist in person or online using our guided search.