The little darlings are back to school, and all across the land parents, grandparents and childminders breathe a sigh of relief as some semblance of normal routine resumes.

As we get back to the regular timetable juggling school drop offs, homeworks, after schools clubs and trying to hold down a job at the same time, life can start to get busy, with a little careful planning, and a few savvy ideas, that doesn’t have to mean resorting to ready meals and junk food.

We know how essential a healthy diet is for good health, and setting up a few simple habits at the start of the school term can go a long way to making sure your family are well fed.

Get the day off to a good start

Breakfast cereals that are marketed towards children tend to be packed with sugar and devoid of fibre or much nutrition. The difference between a sugar-laden cereal and a nourishing breakfast can really impact your child’s energy levels, mood, learning and concentration. Starting the day with a sugar hit is definitely not a good idea, especially if your child is feeling a little anxious about the new term, as sugar can trigger adrenalin and exacerbate the feeling of stress.

As the marketing suggests, it will provide them with energy (sugar!), but that’s about it in terms of nutrition. Keep an eye on food labels and aim for a low sugar option with less than 5g sugar per 100g. A low sugar, wholegrain cereal like Weetabix or shredded wheat with sliced banana is a good option, and there are now a few low sugar granolas that taste great with yoghurt and fruit, and will appeal to older kids and teenagers.

Boiled, poached or scrambled egg on toast is a great breakfast for kids, as it is quick, tasty and will keep them going. Older kids might like to try making their own overnight oats, and porridge is always a healthy family favourite. Wholemeal toast with banana and peanut butter is a winner too, or if all else fails and they refuse to eat breakfast, then using frozen fruit and blending it in a smoothie with yoghurt and milk will give them some good nutrition to fuel their body and brain until breaktime.

Pack a snack

Most schools have a healthy break policy, and encourage children to eat fruit mid-morning, but here are a few other options that work well at breaktime, or for an after school snack:

  • A variety of fresh fruit – bananas, apples, pears (anything that won’t get battered and bruised in the bottom of a schoolbag!).
  • Yoghurt – again, look out for lower sugar yoghurts and avoid artificial sweeteners.
  • Low sugar oat biscuits (Nairns do a good range in mini snack packs of 2 biscuits).

Healthy lunches

If your child takes a packed lunch, there are a few guidelines on what should be included to help them get a well balanced, nourishing meal:

  • Starchy foods like bread, rice, potatoes or pasta (ideally wholemeal, wholegrain, or at last 50:50).
  • Protein foods like meat, fish, eggs or beans
  • A dairy item, like cheese or yogurt
  • Vegetables or salad and a portion of fruit

Family favourites

Sit down with your family and talk about what meals you all like to eat for dinner. Use these ideas as the basis of a three or four week menu plan. You don’t have to stick to the plan religiously, but it will at least allow you to be a little more organised around your shopping and cooking habits, saving you time and helping with the weekly budget. You may also find that you have less food waste, saving you money too.

It’s a good idea to make more than you need for one night, so you can have it again tomorrow, in a slightly different way – think chilli and rice tonight, made into chilli fajitas tomorrow, or spaghetti Bolognese tonight, with leftovers as lasagne tomorrow.

This blog post first appeared as an article in my Irish News column on Saturday 7 September 2019.