Parents face numerous challenges when it comes to ensuring that their children receive the essential nutrition needed for optimal physical and cognitive development through healthy eating. Many children have a tendency to be picky or fussy eaters, so parents don’t always know what to pack for school. The frequent disruptions caused by constant load shedding are also affecting food preparation and family meal times.
According to Vanessa Clarke, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for Association for Dietetics in South Africa (Adsa), the increasing prevalence of convenient food options and the ease of accessing takeaway meals through home deliveries and drive-thrus, pose challenges for parents in ensuring that their children consume well-balanced meals.
It is important to note that meals that prioritise convenience and fast-food options tend to lack adequate servings of vegetables and fruit. Additionally, these meals are typically low in essential nutrients such as fibre and protein, while being higher in saturated fat and salt content, explains Clarke.
Parents, have a plan-B
“Children are also often powering through their school day on energy and sports drinks instead of prioritising nutrient-dense meals made from whole foods.”
In addition, she points out that while good nutrition is important for people of all ages, school-going children are especially susceptible to the negative effects of a poor diet. Healthy eating not only contributes to the growth of strong bodies, muscles, bones, and teeth, but it also has a significant impact on brain development, cognitive performance, and mood.
Promoting a fashionable and healthy lifestyle at home
Thembekile Dhlamini, another Adsa spokesperson and registered dietitian, faces the same issues as the parents she counsels as a parent of a school-aged kid.
“I understand parents who are challenged by their children’s diet and nutrition at home and at school because I am one of them.”
Dhlamini shares with Health For Mzansi that when her son started school, she made sure to provide him with nutritious food options to support his development. However, he showed no interest in any of the options offered to him.
“His teacher noticed he was throwing away food from his packed lunch box. I had to shift my tactics.”
Most of the time, after school, they sit together and enjoy a nutritious home-cooked lunch consisting of a wide variety of foods.
“As parents, we must be role models for healthy eating and make a healthy lifestyle part of what we value as a family. We need to take our children’s preferences and habits into account, make sure they understand healthy eating and nutrition and reinforce this at home to ensure that our children can perform well at school,” she explains.
ADSA shares some kid-friendly, affordable and nutritious options including:
- Yoghurt, cheese and milk provide both protein as well as calcium and essential vitamins.
- A peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread provides carbohydrates and healthy fats.
- A wholewheat sandwich with a filling of omega-3-rich fish such as pilchards or mackerel provides carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats for brain function.
- Carrot and cucumber sticks with a hummus dip provide a high-fibre, vitamin-rich serving of fresh veg as well as protein from the chickpeas.
- Eggs are a versatile food that can be included in lunchboxes and meals in many ways. In addition to protein, eggs provide iodine which plays a role in brain development and thyroid function.
- Beans in a wholewheat wrap or roll is a great way to provide both carbohydrates and protein at the same time to school-going children.
- A banana before or after extra-curricular activities can help to boost energy.
- Water should always be the first choice to meet the fluid demands of a child. Add fruit such as strawberries, lemon or orange slices for extra flavour.
- For balance, always include fresh vegetables and fruits in lunch boxes. Add nuts, such as walnuts, if you can.
Energy in three forms
Clarke says supporting the energy demands of school-going children is key. Just like adults, children require energy in three forms.
They need protein to support the everyday functions of the cells in their bodies, high-fibre carbohydrates for a steady supply of glucose for their brains and bodies and healthy fat which supports brain health and helps their bodies absorb crucial vitamins such as Vitamin A, D, E and K, she adds.
Along with meeting children’s energy needs, adequate calcium and vitamin D intake is essential at school-going age, as 50% of a person’s bone mass is acquired between the ages of 9 and 18 years.
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