Primary school children grow rapidly and so relative to their size, have higher needs than adults for calories and many nutrients. It’s also the stage in life when children should gradually move towards a diet that’s lower in fat and higher in fibre. This can start as children approach school age but it’s a good idea to be flexible depending on your child’s eating habits and level of activity – some young children develop at a slower pace and so may be unable to eat enough to satisfy energy and nutrient needs, while others may have big appetite’s well before they start school.
LESSONS IN A BALANCED DIET
The best way to make sure children get all the energy and nutrients they need is to provide foods from the four main food groups, adapting portion sizes as your child grows. These four food groups are:
- Potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates – these foods provide energy, fibre, vitamins and minerals. It’s best to choose high-fibre options.
- Fruit and vegetables – these provide fibre, vitamins and minerals. Children, like adults, should eat at least five varied portions a day with portions adapted to their appetite and size. Fruit juice counts but should be limited to 150ml a day and only drunk at mealtimes to keep teeth healthy.
- Dairy – dairy products – milk, cheese and yogurt – provide calcium for bones and teeth, protein for growth, plus vitamins and minerals. Lower fat and sugar options should be chosen. For those with a medically diagnosed allergy, alternatives are also available.
- Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat, fish and other proteins – these foods provide protein and vitamins and minerals, especially iron. Plus children, like adults, should enjoy, two portions of sustainably sourced fish a week, one of which should be oily.
Nutritionally poor foods high in fat, salt and sugar such as crisps, cakes and biscuits should only be consumed in small amounts and less often. Choose healthier snacks such as fruit and vegetables or crackers and cheese.
Intakes of saturated fat and sugar are often too high and fibre intakes too low for children aged 4-10 years – only 14% meet recommendations for fibre.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet is the best way to ensure children get all the nutrients they need to grow properly, while at the same time helping to protect them from common problems such as tooth decay and unwanted weight gain. Almost a quarter of 5 year olds in England suffer with tooth decay, with an average of three teeth affected! Similarly, 23% of 4-5 year old children in reception classes weigh more than is healthy, rising to 35% of 10-11 year olds in year 6 at primary school.
Swotting up on the sweet stuff
Health experts say one of the best ways to help protect children’s teeth and waistlines is to limit the amount of sugar in the food and drink they have. It’s good advice – children are currently having at least double the amount of sugar that’s recommended.
It’s only certain sugars that need to be reduced though. These are the ones we often refer to as added sugars – the types of sugar that get added to everything from cakes, biscuits, sweets and soft drinks to less obvious foods such as breakfast cereals, cooking sauces, ketchup and baked beans. Health experts call these ‘free’ sugars and they include sugar itself, as well as honey, syrups and fruit concentrates. Fruit juice and fruit purees are also free sugars – even though they contain only natural sugars, these are squeezed out of the fruit’s normal structure and so are potentially more damaging to teeth.
The good news is there’s no need to limit milk or fruit. These both contain natural sugars – lactose in milk and fructose in fruit – but these are not harmful to health.
Milk contains a natural sugar called lactose but health organisations around the world, including the NHS, say there’s no need to avoid or limit this type of sugar as it’s not harmful to health. Skimmed, 1% fat, semi-skimmed and whole milk, as well as plain, unsweetened yogurts and fromage frais are all free from added sugars.
As children grow so quickly, their needs for protein, vitamins and minerals are high in comparison to their size. In particular, children need plenty of protein to support muscle and bone growth – and that’s where dairy is a winner. Milk, cheese and yogurt are good sources of this nutrient.
Calcium and phosphorus are also crucial nutrients needed for the growth and development of bones. During childhood and the teenage years, large amounts of calcium are deposited in bone. This means it’s vital to get enough calcium during this rapid period of growth. Milk, cheese and yogurt are the main sources of calcium in the UK.
Fortunately, most primary-aged children seem to get enough of most vitamins and minerals in their diet. But there are two exceptions:
11% of children aged 4 to 10 years have very low intakes of vitamin A. This nutrient is needed for normal skin and vision, but it’s also important for the immune system to function normally. It’s important that children have strong immune systems because when they start school they’re likely to come into contact with heaps of different bugs and illnesses. Hard cheese provides vitamin A so is a great addition to the diets of young children as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
It’s not a nutrient we hear much about, but 7% of 4 to 10 year olds have very low intakes of iodine. Children need this nutrient to grow normally and for cognitive function – all the mental activities that affect our attention, memory and language, and our ability to think, make decisions and solve problems. Milk and yogurt are both rich sources of iodine so can help children get enough of this nutrient.
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Last reviewed: 03/2021
Next review due: 03/2023