It’s no secret that what they eat, how they eat and when they eat is crucial to a child’s performance at school. But so many of the messages we receive about food are confusing that it can be very difficult to know for sure that we’re giving our children the best possible food combinations.
‘Providing a healthy diet and environment can be a pleasurable way to care for your loved ones and yourself,’ says Katherine Megaw, a paediatric dietician in Johannesburg. ‘Food not only fuels our bodies; it also affects our mood. And everything your kids are swigging, dipping, chomping down on and sipping could be leading them straight into a sad state. We eat a lot of unhappy meals.
‘Everyday foods void of important nutrients, minerals and healthy fats are also laden with jaw-dropping levels of sugar and dangerous fats that research has linked to depression. But the stress of modern-day life makes it easier to cave in to the temptations of fast food and the convenience diet.’
Megaw points out that as children become teenagers, they also become more independent in their food choices, but they don’t necessarily make the best choices, even if they’ve been brought up eating a healthy diet. ‘They tend to eat too many high-fat and high-calorie snack foods, and they hit the fast-food outlets much more often than they did when they were younger,’ she says. ‘This is often because of school, sports and work schedules overlapping regular mealtimes.’
The key is to teach your children about balanced eating, and to favour nutrition-dense food over calorie-dense food. The simplest way is to divide your plate – or their lunchboxes – into a mental half and two quarters. ‘Half should be fruit and vegetables; a quarter (or the palm of the child’s hand) should be protein; and the last quarter carbohydrates the size of the child’s fist,’ says Claudine Ryan, registered dietician and nutritional manager for the Compass Group. ‘Aim for lean protein and low-GI starches; then add one fat – a
poly or mono-unsaturated fat like peanut butter, avocado or nuts.
‘The time just after school is a great window of opportunity to get your child to eat something healthy, as they generally come home starving, having rushed lunch to spend time with their friends in the playground,’ suggests Megaw. ‘And a hungry child is a less fussy child. A few simple ideas and a few minutes spent in preparation can make a big difference to your child’s diet.’
Instead of whole fruit in a fruit bowl, cut up a selection of colourful fruits and arrange them on a plate, she advises. You can also have healthy snacks such as mini cheeses, dried fruit, or a bowl of salad with a tasty dressing on the table, so that your child eats these rather than crisps or chocolate biscuits.
Ryan adds that balance is important. ‘Look at your children’s energy intake and ensure they’re eating enough. They need sufficient wholegrain, unrefined carbohydrates. Low-GI food supplies energy for up to three hours, and whole grains contain vital minerals, vitamins and fibre.’
A vital part of your child’s nutrition is their fluid intake. Dehydration can cause fatigue, which can have a negative impact on their concentration. ‘Younger children need to drink at least four glasses of pure water a day, and then they can add fluids from other sources, such as diluted juice or milk,’ says Ryan. ‘But it’s important to remember that everyone is different – if they are playing sport or it’s unusually hot or humid, they’ll need more fluid.’
And while fluid can come from many sources, not just water, remember that pure fruit juices are sugar-laden, as are fizzy drinks and energy drinks. If your child has a weight problem, they might be eating well and then undoing all of their efforts by drinking empty calories.
‘Energy drinks are fine for sport,’ says Ryan. ‘They have a high GI, so they’re not much use for sustaining energy. They should be used as part of recovery or during a match, because they hydrate and deliver energy for immediate use. But they shouldn’t be part of your child’s daily intake, because your child will be taking in a lot of unnecessary sugar.’