How to meet your school-going child’s nutritional needs

Two dietitians offer tips to ensure your child is eating healthy meals and snacks for a growing body and mind

13 January 2022 - 06:00
School lunches and snacks are an important part of a balanced diet.
School lunches and snacks are an important part of a balanced diet.
Image: Association for Dietetics in South Africa

As children enter their school-going years filled with changes and new challenges, so, too, will their diets need to change.

While growth in the primary school years is slower than the growth children experience as babies or toddlers, their nutritional needs shift as they are required to focus in the classroom or participate in sports and other physical activities.

This is also often the time children become more open to trying different foods and when they will start learning about eating habits that they will carry into their adult lives.

Zelda Ackerman, a registered dietitian and Association for Dietetics in SA (Adsa) spokesperson, says the primary school years are the ideal time for parents to prepare their children for a lifetime of healthy eating.

“What happens around food in both the home and school is really important not just to ensure optimal nutrition for growing bodies, but to educate our children about how important daily food choices are to our overall health and our ability to perform well in life,” Ackerman says.

She adds that a balanced diet is important for developing strong bones, teeth and muscles, and for supporting your child’s immune system.


Vanessa Clarke, Adsa spokesperson and registered dietitian, says school-going children have high energy needs. “As children move through various school levels, their energy demands will increase, which means they need more carbohydrates, protein and fat to support necessary bodily functions and their growth.”

To meet these energy demands, it is important for children to start their day with a balanced breakfast of high-fibre carbohydrates such as wholewheat toast, oats, or granola; protein such as eggs, cheese, or yoghurt; healthy fat such as avocado, nut butters, or olive oil; and vitamins and minerals from fruit and vegetables.

Children of a school-going age will typically eat four to five times a day so, apart from a balanced breakfast, school lunches and snacks are very important.

Clarke encourages parents to prepare balanced snacks and meals for their children’s lunchboxes that contain all the essential nutrients they require. To do this, she says you can include the following:


  • High-fibre carbohydrates such as wholewheat bread, a wholewheat wrap, or high fibre crackers such as Provitas.
  • Fruits that are easy to eat such as apples, naartjies, bananas and nectarines.
  • A vegetable portion such as sweet pepper strips, cucumber wedges, or carrot sticks.
  • A protein portion such as chicken drumsticks, meatballs, raw nuts, biltong, or cheese. You can also combine the protein and carbohydrate portion by making a chicken mayo sandwich.
  • A water bottle to keep your children hydrated. If they prefer flavoured water, add a lemon slice, a sprig of mint, or berries as an alternative to sugary flavoured waters.
  • If your child will be having a longer school day, include additional portions of fruit, vegetables, or raw nuts and consider including a yoghurt or smoothie.


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