Nutrition for School-Age Children

The increasing independence of a school-age child may be a welcome contrast to the constant demands of a preschooler. By early school age, a child should be well on the way to establishing healthful eating habits and regular physical activity to maintain a healthful weight.

A normal school-age child will gain about 7 pounds a year, and his or her height will increase by approximately 2.5 inches a year. As children approach their teen years, boys and girls differ distinctly in growth patterns. Puberty generally begins about age 10 in girls and age 12 in boys and normally lasts for 2 to 3 years.

During these years, growth spurts occur. It is during the school-age years that the guidance of parents is especially important to formulating good nutrition habits. Modeling healthful eating practices such as eating foods that are low in fat and high in complex carbohydrates and fiber is important.

Emphasize breakfast as an important meal. Pack healthful lunches that include fruit, vegetables, bread or some other form of starch, a meat or other protein, and low-fat milk. If a child participates in the school lunch program, talk about how to make nutritious food choices. Provide fruits, vegetables, wholegrain breads, or low-fat yogurts as after-school snacks.

If a child participates in vigorous physical activity, more calories may be needed. One of the major challenges for some school-age children is controlling weight. If a child eats more calories than are used, the pounds will add up, particularly if the child is inactive.

Besides the social and emotional stresses that may result from peers who make fun of a child's excess weight, a higher than desirable weight at this age can increase the risk for later health problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and increased blood cholesterol or triglyceride values.

Still, overweight children have the same nutrient needs as other children. The goal should be to stop or slow the rate of weight gain and allow height (growth) to catch up. Do not allow a child to restrict certain foods or to try fad diets. Instead, provide healthful foods in lesser amounts. The best way to teach a child about good nutrition is to set a good example in your own eating habits.