At this time of year, I’m often asked the best way to keep kids healthy, strong and resilient through the first term back at school…..and this year is no exception!!
Even though we’ve all had a wonderfully warm summer and many children have been able to recharge their batteries with sun, sea and fresh air, there is still the worry that our kids’ immune systems will take a bashing once they are mingling again with their school and nursery friends.
Some parents are also concerned that school anxiety and overwhelm will kick-in for their child, and other parents worry that learning and concentration might not come that easily to their kids after the long summer break.
Nutritious food comes first in my armoury when supporting kids’ immunity, resilience and focus; and that’s where upping a child’s nutritional intake can really help build more robust immunity and help with the overall stress and academic expectations from school. Here are my top tips for a great start to the school term.
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A Healthy Breakfast Is Key
Since we cannot guarantee what a child actually eats during their school or nursery day, then their breakfast needs to be as substantial as possible to avoid a tetchy ravenous child at the school gate at 3pm. Research has also found that those children who eat a nutritious breakfast have better focus and concentration during the day.
Sugary cereals are not going to do the job as well as a homemade breakfast. So, my top tips are to always include a healthy protein and fat at breakfast time which could be eggs, some avocado, nut butter, ground seeds or good quality turkey, chicken, ham or smoked fish. Also try my porridges, muffins, waffles, pancakes and granolas in my two family cookbooks and recipe blog.
School pickup is the time of day when kids tend to be most exhausted, fractious and starving. It is very tempting to let them stuff themselves with crisps and biscuits when they finish school as this is the time of day when they will be seeking out a big sugar hit as their blood sugars are usually rock bottom by then.
However, a highly processed snack is not that good for kids as refined sugar can actually disrupt the blood sugars further, which can in turn also trigger some hyperactive behaviour which is hard work to manage. This choice may even take a hit to the immune system too, as excess sugar can affect the important action of white blood cells.
Again, roll out the homemade muffins and waffles at this point or take along a homemade cookie or even a sandwich with a protein-rich filling. Fruit can tide them over until you get home and then you can give a “picky plate” packed with crunchy veg, dips, crackers, nuts and seeds – just enough to get them get through homework and then to supper time.
Pack a more substantial snack box (which could contain hot or cold foods) if you have after-school activities and then maybe give them a smaller and lighter supper when you get home. There are a few healthy snacks you can buy if you are in a real rush, and you can get some ideas here.
Kefir & Live Yoghurt
Kefir is a bubbly, sour yoghurty drink you can buy or make. It is a great source of beneficial gut microbes, amino acids and a wide range of nutrients, including high levels of vitamin B12, calcium and magnesium. It is a fantastic source of nutrients to supercharge the immune system via a healthy gut. Live yoghurt is the next best thing. Give your kids some kefir or yoghurt at breakfast on its own or blended into a smoothie or pour onto a bowl of granola. You can also serve it as a pudding after supper with lots of fresh berries and a squeeze of honey or maple syrup. If your child is dairy-free or really does not like kefir or yoghurt consider a probiotic supplement containing live cultures.
You’ve heard this before from me, but I’ll say it again, Vitamin D is important for both immunity and mood!
You get it from the sun in the summer, and also from foods such as oily fish, organic milk and eggs. But the NHS says that everyone (except bottle-fed babies who consume >500ml per day of infant formula) should be taking a vitamin D food supplement from October to April during the autumn and winter months.
If you know your child has low vitamin D levels, your family have dark skin or your child is always slathered with suncream throughout the summer, then you take Vitamin D all year round; and there is no harm in most other kids starting back on Vitamin D as soon as the cooler cloudier days start drawing in.
The Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) which is the minimum daily intake of vitamin D for children should be 400iu/10ug. However, during the winter if the immunity is struggling then nursery age children can take up to 2,500iu/67.5ug per day, 4-8 year olds it’s a maximum of 3,000iu/75ug and for 9-18 year olds it is 4,000iu/100mcg. I would not take these maximum daily levels for more than 6-8 weeks without checking blood serum levels of Vitamin D.
In my mind zinc is one of the most important nutrients for growing children. Not only is it important for building robust immunity, but it also helps make melatonin which helps us get to sleep. It aids regulation of our nervous system and I always go with the mantra “Zinc helps you think”. Zinc also helps with a healthy sense of smell and taste and is key component of the nutrients that make our stomach acid which digests protein and our pancreatic elastase which helps with assimilation of nutrients.
The food with the most zinc is oysters! But not all kids will have them and they are usually quite expensive (we get them here – amazing if you like cooking with oysters), but other seafood has good levels, as do nuts and seeds, as well as milk products. But if you have a selective eater on your hands then some extra zinc might be their friend. Most multivitamins and minerals contain some zinc.
In terms of how much zinc they need: 1-3 year olds need 3-7mg zinc, 4-8 year olds require between 5-12mg per day, 9-13 year olds it’s 8-23mg and then for teenagers they need more like 11-34mg – this is because they need a lot more zinc whilst going through puberty.
Iron is a key nutrient for growing kids and helps to oxygenate the blood which nourishes the immune system, energy levels and brain function. Pasty pale kids often test low in iron or iron stores (ferritin) if they have a blood test, and many kids are not getting enough iron as there is a trend towards eating more white meats containing minimal iron and away from red meats which are more iron-rich. You can get iron from plant-based foods such as black beans, chickpeas, tahini, baobab, mulberries, green vegetables and molasses but they need to be eaten in large quantities to build back up iron levels if they have dropped too low.
Tip: remember to pair iron with Vitamin C to optimise iron uptake and improve immunity. This could be by eating a satsuma or some blueberries, drinking some freshly squeezed orange juice or adding parsley or lemon/lime juice to your food. Raw red peppers are also packed with vitamin C.
How much iron does a growing child need every day? 1-3 year olds need a minimum of 7mg of iron, 4-8 year olds require at least 10mg per day, 9-13 year olds it’s 8mg and then for teenagers they need more like 11mg for boys and 15mg for menstruating girls. The maximum a child should take is 40mg per day and for 14-18 year olds it is 45mg.
Omega 3 fatty acids are key nutrients that feed the brain, the immune system as well as the gut microbiome. If a child is low in omega 3 then they might have dry bumpy “chicken skin”, dry hair and also be very thirsty quite a lot of the time. They might also find it hard to concentrate and focus and may even struggle with itchy skin or wheezing. Omega 3 is one of the most important anti-inflammatory nutrients and can be found in oily fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines as well as seafood, organic whole milk and some omega 3 rich eggs. Plant-based omega 3 options include walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds and hulled hemp seeds as well as marine algae based omega 3 food supplements. If you struggle to get these foods into your child regularly then top up with a pure and potent fish-based omega 3 food supplement which come in liquids and chewables as well as easy to swallow caplets.
It’s elderberry season right now and the elder trees are brimming with juicy berries which you can pick, cook and turn into a healthy immunity syrup. Packed full of antioxidants, flavonoids and vitamins, elderberry has been flagged by several research papers to have very effective anti-viral properties.
If you do not have elderberry trees growing near you then pick up an elderberry supplement which you can give your child whenever they seem run down or at the first sign of a cold or other virus.
Brain Food Supplements
Excitement can tip into anxiety very easily, and if you have a child who has a tendency to overthink or worry about school friendship dynamics or overstress about homework then things can escalate if their nutrition is running low. All my suggestions above can help with this sense of overwhelm.
For older kids who struggle with school worries and overwhelm or focus and concentration issues then try supplementing with nootropics which are a type of supplement that promotes brain health and enhance cognitive function as well as calming the nervous system.
I recommend GABA-rich Theanine which is the relaxing amino acid in black and green tea (without the caffeine). Theanine is a calming food supplement to help with stressful times and can help some people with attention difficulties. Theanine helps balance brain chemistry, reduces social anxiety and tension, improves concentration, enhances mood and fights stress.
Consider mellow Magnesium to help take the edge off. Magnesium is an essential mineral that plays a vital role in nearly every bodily process. It can help with sleep, stress and melts away worries. Magnesium is one of the best and easiest ways to help you relax and calm your mind.
Saffron is a spice that is used as a natural remedy for anxious thoughts, low mood, panic attacks and insomnia. Today, more and more people are discovering that it also helps to increase focus levels and provide support during stressful times. Studies have indicated that it can be very helpful in supporting people with ADHD and concentration problems.
Bacopa is a popular nootropic with many benefits for the brain. It has been shown to reduce anxiety, enhance focus and concentration, and support cognitive functioning. Bacopa is thought to naturally help to induce a calm mental state.
Lion’s Mane Mushroom is for your child if they suffer from anxious thoughts, increased stress, concentration problems, short-term memory issues and difficulty focusing. Lions Mane may work for your child by boosting GABA levels in the brain. GABA is an important neurotransmitter that helps balance emotions and mental function. Lion’s mane is thought to help focus and thinking process without overstimulation.
I hope these tips help your kids have a wonderful start to term! Do leave any comments below if you have any great back to school health tips to share with our community of parents.
- NIH Vitamin D Fact Sheet for Health Professionals
- NIH Zinc Fact Sheet for Health Professionals
- NIH Iron Fact Sheet for Health Professionals
- Anti-influenza activity of elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
- A Review of the Antiviral Properties of Black Elder (Sambucus nigra L.) Products
- L-Theanine: properties, synthesis and isolation from tea
- The effects of L-theanine (Suntheanine®) on objective sleep quality in boys with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial
- Magnesium Status and Stress: The Vicious Circle Concept Revisited
- The Effects of Magnesium Supplementation on Subjective Anxiety and Stress—A Systematic Review
- The Role and the Effect of Magnesium in Mental Disorders: A Systematic Review
- Crocus sativus L. Versus Methylphenidate in Treatment of Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A Randomized, Double-Blind Pilot Study
- The Effect of Crocus sativus L. and Its Constituents on Memory: Basic Studies and Clinical Applications
- The effects of twenty-one nutrients and phytonutrients on cognitive function: A narrative review
- Neuropharmacological Review of the Nootropic Herb Bacopa monnieri
- Molecular and Functional Characterization of Bacopa monniera: A Retrospective Review
- Chronic Effects of Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri) on Human Memory
- Medicinal properties of Hericium erinaceus and its potential to formulate novel mushroom-based pharmaceuticals
- Neurohealth Properties of Hericium erinaceus Mycelia Enriched with Erinacines