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12 Nutrition Tips for Back to School

Simple and easy meal planning & lunch box ideas

As kids head back to school this week after a fun-filled summer, parents are faced with the challenge of preparing nutritious lunch boxes and snacks that fuel their children’s bodies and nourish their growing minds.

Proper nutrition is vital for academic success as it provides the energy and focus needed for a full day of learning.

Learn what makes a healthy diet, the key to meal planning and practical tips to ensure your child is fuelled with the right nutrients to excel in the classroom.

Why childhood nutrition is important

Good nutrition is the foundation of optimal health. There is a strong correlation between a nutritious diet and improved cognitive function, memory, attention span and problem-solving skills. Ensuring your child receives a well-rounded intake of nutrients is crucial for their ability to focus, retain information and perform at their best in school.

What makes a healthy diet?

A balanced diet comprises of a variety of nutrients that contribute to overall health and well-being. Focus on incorporating the following key components into your child’s meals:

Protein is essential for growth and development. Include protein sources such as nuts and seeds, muesli, organic eggs, beans, lentils, quinoa, organic chicken or turkey and wild caught fish (cod, haddock, mackerel, sardines). Avoid processed meats and deli meats (ham, salami, pepperoni) as they contain high levels of sodium, unhealthy fats and preservatives like sodium nitrate that are linked to increased health risks such as heart disease, cancer and hypertension (high blood pressure).

Complex carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of energy. Opt for vegetables like sweet potatoes, butternut squash, potatoes, beets and parsnips, and whole grains like wholewheat bread, brown rice, quinoa, beans and oats. These carbohydrates provide a sustained energy release and help prevent blood sugar crashes.

Healthy fats including omega-3 fatty acids are fundamental for supporting brain health, cognitive function and overall well-being in growing children. You can find omega-3 in avocados, walnuts, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, chia seeds and fatty fish like salmon and sardines. Drizzle cold pressed flaxseed oil onto food and into smoothies but don’t heat the oil as high temperatures can degrade its delicate omega-3 fatty acids and diminish its nutritional benefits.

Fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that enhance immune function and support overall health. Opt for organic where possible (be mindful of the dirty dozen and clean fifteen) and aim for a rainbow of colours to ensure a diverse nutrient intake. Berries, pomegranates, apples, spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, red bell peppers and sweet potatoes are known for their high antioxidant content and nutrient density.

High-fibre foods like brown rice, apples, pears, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, artichokes, lentils and kidney beans are important for digestive health and can help prevent constipation, promote regular bowel movements and support a healthy gut microbiome (which is vital for immune function and brain health).

Nutrition tips for children

Start the day with a nutritious breakfast

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and this is particularly true for young children. A balanced breakfast rich in complex carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats jumpstarts their metabolism and enhances cognitive function. Opt for wholegrain muesli, oat meal or porridge with a plant-based milk, a smoothie bowl (a smoothie topped with granola, nuts, chis seeds, fresh fruits and coconut flakes) or wholewheat toast paired with protein sources like eggs or nut butter. A good breakfast helps sustain energy levels and keep their attentions spans throughout the day.

Wholegrain oats and homemade muesli (made without sugar, chocolate or flavourings) are slow-burning carbohydrates – this means they release energy gradually over a longer period of time, providing sustained energy levels. They also contain all the essential B vitamins that are vital for efficient brain function. Most shop-bought muesli varieties contain additives, sugars or sweeteners and roasted nuts that potentially contain unhealthy trans fats. They are often fortified with synthetic vitamins and minerals which are not well-absorbed by the body.

Pack smart lunches

When packing school lunches, aim for a variety of colourful and nutrient-dense foods. Include a mix of proteins and plenty of vegetables and fruits. Preparing lunchboxes the night before ensures you have enough time to pack a wholesome meal without feeling rushed. Here are some healthy lunchbox ideas:

  • Wholegrain wrap with turkey, chicken or egg, lettuce, tomato and a smear of carrot hummus.
  • Veggie wrap with beetroot hummus, grated carrots, cucumber and bell peppers.
  • Bento box style: divide the lunchbox into compartments and fill them with a different bite-sized options like cherry tomatoes, vegetable sticks, hard-boiled eggs, quinoa or rice, mini rice cakes and sliced fruits.
  • Veggie sushi rolls made with cucumber, red bell pepper, avocado and carrot.
  • Savoury muffins – carrot and courgette, sweet potato and cinnamon, spinach, pumpkin and feta.
  • Rice paper rolls filled with rice noodles, avocado, cucumber, grated carrot and shredded lettuce.
  • Pasta salad with wholegrain or gluten-free rice pasta, diced veggies and pesto, or a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil or flaxseed oil.
  • Quinoa salad with chopped veggies, chickpeas, and a lemony dressing.
  • Homemade soup in a flask.

Get creative with healthy snacks

Pack healthy snacks for your child’s school day to help maintain energy levels and prevent hunger-induced distractions in class. Choose smart snacks like fresh fruit kebabs (thread colourful chunks of fruit onto skewers), vegetable sticks with hummus, whole-grain crackers with organic cheese or homemade energy bars. Avoid sugary, processed snacks that can lead to energy crashes and reduced concentration.

Eat dinner as a family

Family dinners not only promote bonding but also offer a great opportunity to introduce a wider variety of nutrient-rich foods they may not have tried before. Children learn through observation, so when you prioritise healthy eating habits, you’re setting a positive example that motivates your child to follow suit. Engage your child in meal planning and preparation to encourage healthier eating habits.

Hydration matters

Proper hydration is crucial for brain function and overall well-being. Encourage your child to drink water throughout the day, both at school and at home. A reusable steel or BPA-free water bottle in their backpack is a handy reminder to stay hydrated. Avoid sugary drinks such as fruit juice, cordial and fizzy drinks as they only spike blood sugar levels which can lead to energy crashes, weight gain and an increased risk of dental issues over time. Fizzy drinks like cola irritate the nervous system and deplete the body of important nutrients, especially B vitamins. This is primarily due to the high sugar content and acidic nature of these drinks.

Include brain-boosting foods

Certain foods contain specific nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins to support brain health and cognitive function. Omega-3 rich foods like avocado, muesli, walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds are essential for brain development. Other brain-boosting foods include blueberries, broccoli, leafy greens (rocket, kale, spinach), bananas, pomegranates, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and Brazil nuts as they contain an abundance of antioxidants and minerals to boost cognition and memory and protect brain cells from toxin damage.

Teach mindful eating and educate your child on nutrition

Encourage your child to eat mindfully and chew their food properly, savouring each bite and paying attention to hunger and fullness cues. Avoid rushing meals and ensure they eat without distractions or in front of screens. Teach your child about the importance of nutrition and how it fuels their body and mind. Knowledge can empower them to make healthier food choices. Want to increase your nutrition knowledge base?

Practical Meal Planning Tips

Plan ahead and batch cook

Set aside time each week to plan meals as it helps you make informed food choices and reduces last-minute unhealthy options. Batch cooking is a fantastic way to save time and ensure you have healthy and nutritious meals readily available throughout the week. Prepare larger quantities of meals and store leftover portions in individual servings in the freezer to provide quick and healthy meals on busy days. Wash, peel and chop vegetables in advance and store them in a sealed glass container in the fridge. Having them ready to use encourages healthier snacking and meal additions.

Involve your child and engage them in meal planning

Let them choose fruits, vegetables and snacks they enjoy as it fosters a sense of ownership over their meals. Cook together and engage your kids in the kitchen. Let them choose a recipe or participate in meal prep to get them excited about eating nutritious foods. Set up a “build-your-own” station for meals like tacos, wraps or salads. Kids love the autonomy of choosing their ingredients and it’s a fun way to prep meals.

Read food labels

Check for hidden sugars, unhealthy fats and artificial additives. Children’s growing bodies and developing metabolisms deserve the best nutritional support, and avoiding excessive sugars and unhealthy fats helps prevent potential health issues such as obesity and dental problems. Steering clear of artificial additives safeguards their well-being as additives contribute to allergic reactions and behavioural issues, especially in sensitive children. If your child is showing signs of food sensitivities, it’s best to consult with a naturopathic nutritionist who can advise you on the best dietary approach for your child. You can also further your knowledge of childhood nutrition by enrolling in CNM’s Nutrition for Everyday Living short course.

Incorporate fun and variety into your meal prep routine

You can use cookie cutters to transform sandwiches and fruits into delightful shapes that spark your child’s imagination. Think heart-shaped sandwiches or star-shaped watermelon slices – these small touches can make a big difference. Create simple food art by arranging ingredients into smiley faces or animals using veggies, fruits and other ingredients. Not only does this creativity make meals visually appealing, it also encourages your child to explore and interact with their food, making the dining experience a fun adventure.

Plan for on-the-go

When you know your child has afterschool activities or is going on a school trip, prepare portable and easily packable healthy meals. Wholegrain wraps, portable salads and bento-style boxes with a mix of finger-friendly foods are good options that can be enjoyed anywhere.

Healthy start to the school year

Healthy meal planning is the key to fuelling young minds. By providing balanced meals and snacks that are rich in essential nutrients, parents can ensure their children have the energy and focus needed to excel in the classroom. Incorporate a range of whole foods, encourage hydration and involve your child in the meal planning process to instil a lifelong appreciation for nutritious eating. With these simple steps, you can fuel your child’s potential and set them on a path to a healthier, happier school year.

If you’re looking for inspiration in the kitchen and more healthy recipes you can make at home, take a look at CNM’s short courses and recipes:

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Blog/Article content reflects the author's research and diverse opinions, not necessarily CNM's views. Items may not be regularly updated, so represent the best available understanding at the time of publication.

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