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The Healthy Food Guide team believe that making small diet and lifestyle changes brings the best long-term gains. We look at the science behind the headlines and promote a balanced way of eating.

By British Nutrition Foundation guest blogger Stacey Lockyer

As well as lessons in maths, children need a good serving of healthy food at lunchtime to get them focused and energised. Here’s why a healthy lunch counts…

Good nutrition is so important for children as their bodies are still growing and developing, so they have higher energy and nutrient needs for their body size than adults. Childhood obesity is a major issue in the UK, and ensuring that schoolchildren develop healthy food habits as early as possible is vital for good health in later life.

Healthy school lunches are a good way for children to meet their nutritional needs – as in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales there are mandatory nutritional standards for school food, including school lunches, so what does a healthy balanced lunch for schoolchildren look like? It should simply be in line with the principles of the Eatwell Guide, which means it includes starchy (carbohydrates (wholegrain or high fibre versions ideally), plenty of fruit and vegetables, lean sources of protein (pulses, meat, fish or eggs) and some dairy foods or fortified dairy alternatives.

lunch

Eating a healthy balanced school lunch should help tick off the following:
1. Their diets are low in vitamins and minerals
Teenagers need meals rich in micronutrients – we know many secondary school children aren’t getting enough magnesium, potassium, selenium and zinc, for example, and girls aged 11 to 18, in particular, are missing out on riboflavin, iron, calcium and iodine.

2. They need to stay hydrated the healthy way
Being dehydrated can cause tiredness and headaches and make learning harder, so children need plenty of fluids – plain water or milk are the best choices. Sugary drinks should be avoided, and fruit or vegetable juices and smoothies should be limited to 150 ml per day (ideally with meals) – this is because although they provide essential nutrients, they also contain ‘free’ sugars – the type we need to limit – and can damage teeth, too.

3. Their diets contain too much sugar
Foods high in fat, sugar and salt (such as chocolate, cakes, biscuits, crisps, sweets, chips and fatty meats) don’t have a place in a healthy lunch. Children in the UK are currently consuming two to three times as much ‘free’ sugar in their diet than they should be.

4. They’re not getting enough fibre
Fibre is important for gut health in children. Four to 10-year-olds need 20g a day and 11 to 18-year-olds need 25g – but on average they’re getting well below this. Foods to include are wholegrain starchy foods (such as wholemeal bread or wholewheat pasta), potatoes with skins, fruit and vegetables, pulses, nuts and seeds.

5. They need more fruit and vegetables
Only 8% of secondary school aged children in the UK are getting their five-a-day. You can get two to three portions just by including plenty of salad or vegetables in the main course and having fruit for dessert.

Nutritious packed lunches can also be put together with a bit of planning. The British Nutrition Foundation has plenty of tips for what to include here.