school lunchbox

Fuelled for school

Do you want your child to perform to the best of their ability at school? One of the best places to start is diet and nutrition, writes Mary Kate Hickey.

There is no doubt that feeding your children a healthy diet helps them to perform well at school. Numerous studies have shown the power that certain foods have on growing bodies. Without the essential nutrients, a child will lack the vitamins and minerals necessary to faciliate normal development. There are many ways that you can implement a healthy diet in your school-age child.


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Research has shown that breakfast-eaters perform better academically and have fewer behaviour problems than breakfast-skippers. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, it gives your child the best start to the day to be able to concentrate and learn in school. A balanced and nutritional breakfast is the best way to do this. Sending your child off to school without breakfast could mean that by the time they eat lunch it could be up to 16 hours since they have last eaten. They need the energy given to them from food to learn, grow and play during school.

Tasty, nutritional and easy breakfasts for the whole family include: 

  • Porridge with honey and fruit.
  • Whole-wheat toast with peanut butter, jam, or cream cheese and fruit.
  • Fresh fruit smoothies.
  • Scrambled eggs with whole-wheat toast.


✔ Make time for a sit down breakfast, your child needs that time to properly eat and digest their food, to fuel their brain for the day ahead.

✔ Make it easy on yourself, chop fruit the night before so you only have to throw it in the blender and flip a switch, keep your bread beside the toaster so you just have to pop it in. Organising these small things the night before will make all the difference when you’re running around looking for matching socks the next morning!


✖ Take the easy route and give your child sugar fueled cereal. To keep their brain energised, the first meal of the day should be high in protein and good carbohydrates – the whole-grain variety that will keep them going for a long spell and keep their blood sugar up. Most teachers cover the more academic subjects that require more concentration, like maths in the morning time. Your child needs their energy from breakfast to last the morning so they can soak up everything taught to them in the morning.

Hydrate your kids

Dehydration, even a very mild case, makes children listless, lethargic, and irritable. Make sure your child brings a large flask of water to school and offer water at every meal.


fuelled for school

The school lunch is one of your child’s three meals of the day, so it’s crucial to be sure you are giving them healthy options. This can be tricky with fussier children, so try making their packed lunch more colourful and fun.

Tasty and nutritional lunches: 

  • Pitta bread with chicken breast, cheese or salad.
  • Crackers with cheese spread or avocado – topped with tomatoes or fruit for extra colour and flavour.
  • Brown/whole-wheat wrap with lean ham, cheese and potato salad.
  • Pesto pasta salad with chicken, peppers and tomatoes.
  • For the colder days – homemade vegetable soup in a flask with brown soda bread.

• Pack a bottle of water or even a small carton of milk, if they are lucky enough to have a fridge to store it in during the day, with their lunch. These drinks are good for your child, and kind to teeth, unlike cordials and soft drinks.


✔ Shake things up – children can get bored very easily and get tired of the same lunches alternating every few days.

✔ Make an effort with presentation – if you’ve the time why not cut shapes in the bread with cookie cutters; make faces with fruits and veggies, and use loads of bright colours in their lunch box!


✖ Forget about portion size. Younger children need smaller portions, and the bigger ones naturally need more, and more variety. Getting a sectioned lunchbox will really help with getting the portions just right for your child’s needs.


fuelled for school

Healthy snacks are an important part of almost every child’s school day. Children cannot eat a lot of food at one meal and typically get hungry between meals. Be sure they are eating a balanced mixture of healthy snacks, and limit treats to certain days.

Tasty and nutritional snacks: 

  • Chopped fresh fruits and veggies with hummus, peanut butter and cream cheese for dipping.
  • Grilled mini cheese and tomato pizzas made on a whole-wheat tortilla.
  • Homemade trail mix with cereal, dried fruit, nuts or soy nuts and mini dark chocolate chips.
  • Homemade blueberry or banana mini muffins.
  • Fresh fruit salad bowl.


✔ Go for variety, snacking is just a mini meal, and you wouldn’t eat a meal with just one item, so mix up the snacks you give your child to keep them interested in and enjoying their food.


✖ Make it too complicated; keep it to finger foods that are easy and relatively mess free to eat. And make sure to pack some napkins for those all to inevitable spills and sticky hands!


Sometimes it can be hard to be 100% sure your child is getting all the necessary vitamins and nutrients.

A daily multivitamin or mineral supplement can come in handy here, and can greatly benefit fussy eaters or those with chronic medical conditions.

fuelled for school

Important vitamins and nutrients for kids: 

• Vitamin A (found in milk, cheese, eggs, yellow/orange vegetables such as carrots, yellow peppers, butternut squash.)

• Vitamin B group (found in meat, chicken, fish, nuts, eggs, milk, cheese, beans).

• Vitamin C (found in fruit and vegetables, particularly citrus fruits and kiwi fruits).

• Calcium (found in dairy products like milk, cheese, yoghurt and fish with edible bones such as salmon or sardines).

• Iron (found in red meat, chicken (thighs and legs in particular), liver, seafood, egg yolks, fortified breakfast cereals).

• Omegas (found in oil-rich fish like salmon, mackerel, haddock, walnuts, flaxseeds.

Probiotic supplements 

According to The Irish Nutrition and Dietetics Institure (INDI,) probiotics are ‘good’ bacteria found in certain foods and supplements, which can have beneficial effects on our health. Probiotics improve the balance of bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract by competing with harmful bacteria to prevent them from settling in the gastrointestinal tract. In some cases they can also stimulate the immune system, helping to fight infections. Probiotics are available in a wide range of different forms; capsules, powders or mixed into foods. There are a number of fermented milk drinks and some yoghurts in which probiotics naturally occur or have been added.

Brain food

There are two kids of essential fats – omega 3 and omega 6. Omega 3 is essential for brain function. Omega 6 fats are crucial to brain and eye development and they help to stabilise mood too. If your children are not eating oil-rich fish at least once a week, try giving them a daily fish oil supplement.

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Q My son is 18 months old and has just started saying his first words. It is an extremely exciting time in our house and my husband and I are eager to encourage his speaking as much possible. What advice would you give us on how we can foster this without bombarding and confusing him?

AThere is nothing better than hearing your baby begin to talk. All the hard work you have put in over the last two years is coming back tenfold.
Toddlers will vary significantly with ability and speed of which they talk however a guide would be about 50 words by 2 years of age. The most important thing to watch for is that your baby/toddler is cooing and babbling and begins to string sounds together like “Mama/Dada” They should have a wide range of speech sounds and like to imitate you and things they hear.
There are many ways that you can promote Speech and Language development at home:
1. Slowing down your own speech and taking time over conversations with your little one. Every day is a new experience when you are 18 months, nappy changes, bath time, baking a cake brings endless opportunity for you to interact and offer new words for them to hear and repeat. Make eye contact, smile and use exaggerated tones to keep things interesting and fun for your tot.
2. Review the toys that you have on offer to your tot and ensure that they give plenty of open ended play opportunities. Role play is a wonderful way to allow children to take the lead. Kitchens with lots of plates, cups and pots. Fill the pots with dry pasta and allow your child to cook and serve you. Playdoh, painting, gardening and sandpits are also great for allowing your child to take the lead and babble about what they are doing. Read plenty of books together and point and allow them time to answer any questions that you ask.
3. Limit screen time. Overuse of televisions and iPads do not give your child opportunity to interact in a two way manner.
4. Ask your child lots of open ended questions “What’s that?” “Where are we?” Point at things they know the answer to for boosting confidence (Car/ Car, etc.) When they don’t know the answer, explain it to them. Limit baby talk and speak clearly with good pronunciation, remember you are the teacher and they will copy you.
If you are concerned about your child’s speech and language development, be sure to speak with your GP or developmental Health Nurse. They are very skilled at understanding the difference between speech delays and spotting something that may require professional attention.
Enjoy watching their little brains absorb the world around them and listen to what they have to say. It won’t be too long before they won’t stop talking to you, asking “Why Mummy/ Daddy?” every 5 minutes….


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Ask Sarah

Q I’ve heard a lot about the Paleo diet and as I am very interested in reducing the amount of processed foods and grain based meals my family eats, we are considering following this diet. From what I read it seems to be a back-to-basics type of eating. Is a Paleo diet safe for children? My kids are aged seven and nine.

A The Paleo diet is one of the most fashionable diets around at the moment. It is also known as the ‘caveman diet’ and is based on cutting out processed foods, starchy foods like bread and potatoes and eating more meat, vegetables and fruit.
As fad diets go, it is not the worst but there are some good and bad sides to it. Reducing the amount of processed foods we eat is always a good idea and by doing that you will usually reduce the amount of fat, salt and sugar you eat, which is a good thing! The problem with the Paleo diet is that it also cuts out dairy (on the basis that cavemen didn’t drink milk) and this means that the diet is very low in calcium. For this reason it is really not suitable for children who do need a lot of calcium for growing bones. How did cavemen manage without dairy? They ate a lot more food than we do (up to 10,000 calories per day compared to the 2,000 most of us eat). By eating that amount of food they were able to pick up just enough calcium from green vegetables and seeds. To put it in perspective, you would need to eat 16 servings of broccoli a day to get all the calcium you need. This is easier to do if you eat 10,000 calories per day rather than 2,000.
The other problem with the paleo diet is that it is not entirely based in science. Many of the Paleo diets out there say you should not eat wheat, even though we know that cavemen did in fact eat wheat and other grains. These diets also don’t recommend that you eat blubber and the big lumps of fat that were also a large part of the caveman diet!
A final problem is that many Paleo diets encourage people to cut out beans and lentils and to get their protein from meat and fish instead. Many studies over the last few years are clear that eating too much animal protein is linked with more cancer and heart disease. Eating some vegetarian meals based on beans and lentils is a great way to get your protein without always going for meat.
Is this a diet we should follow? I think there is a lot we can learn from the Paleo diets. We could all do with eating less salt, sugar and processed foods and adding in more nuts and seeds as well as more vegetables. However, I think following a strict Paleo diet could lead to low levels of calcium and vitamin D and so it is not suitable for children or teens and adults would need to think about a calcium supplement.