Back to school the healthy way

The summer holidays may be in full flow but it won't be long before the kids are heading back to school. While they may not be too keen, a healthy, nutritious diet will help to keep them full of energy and ready to learn, so here are some tips on how to get them set for the classroom.

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The right start
We all know breakfast is the most important meal of the day. In fact, a 2006 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that skipping breakfast can hinder cognition and learning in school children, so giving them the right start is a must.

The ideal breakfast will give them energy for the day ahead and keep them going until lunch without the need for sweets and crisps mid-morning.

Set them up for the day with slow-release energy foods such as boiled or scrambled eggs on wholegrain toast, or porridge with chopped fruit for a warming energy-filled winter breakfast. Try to avoid sugary cereals, no matter how much they plead, and give them a wholegrain variety without the added sugar and salt, served with fresh fruit.

A healthy lunch
If your little ones go to school with a lunch box, it gives you the perfect opportunity to make sure they're eating well. Sandwiches should consist of healthier wholegrain bread and some protein, perhaps in the form of lean meat such as chicken, turkey or fish, and include some salad to give them that fresh vegetable boost. If your child isn't keen on bread, try varying this lunchbox staple by using pitta bread or a wrap.

Pasta or brown rice salads with beans, which contain plenty of iron for mental alertness, also make for a healthy alternative, as do hard-boiled eggs for protein and slow-release energy.

Adding some sliced, fresh veggies such as carrot sticks or pieces of red pepper, along with a healthy dip such as hummus or yoghurt dip will ensure they are getting at least some of their five-a-day - and include either a natural yoghurt or a piece of fruit such as an apple, orange or banana to keep them away from the cakes and biscuits.

Healthy snacks
Don't be afraid to give your child snacks to take to school - their fast-growing bodies need a little energy boost during the day. But do make sure their mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack does not come in the form of chocolate, crisps and sweets as these will result in a sugar rush and the inevitable crash afterwards.

Fresh fruit or veg make for an excellent snack and you can always include some peanut butter or cottage cheese for them to dip into with healthy wholegrain crackers. Nuts are also great for keeping them going until lunch or dinnertime, and along with eggs, contain choline which has been found to improve memory. Try to avoid the heavily-salted roasted variety, and vary things by alternating between almonds, walnuts, peanuts and cashews.

The evening meal provides another opportunity to give your kids brain-boosting foods and ensure they are getting all the nutrients they need.

Ideally your child's dinner plate should be balanced with half the plate consisting of vegetables (plenty of greens if they'll eat them) and the remainder divided equally between carbs, ie potatoes, wholegrain pasta or brown or wild rice, and protein. Oily fish is renowned for containing healthy omega-3s, which promote brain cell development and cognitive function, but only four portions per week for boys and two for girls are recommended.

Foods to avoid
As most parents will be well aware, the foods to avoid are generally the ones that kids love. But sugary foods such as sweets and cans of pop, refined foods such as white bread, biscuits and cakes, and processed foods will not only take your child over their recommended daily sugar allowance, but cause spikes and troughs in their blood sugar levels.

The result? Not just an energy crash but a brain drain too.

While many children are fussy eaters, giving them a healthy diet is essential if they are to make the most of their education and out-of-school activities - get them involved in food preparation and meal planning and they are much more likely to take all your healthy suggestions on board.