Parents must ensure that each main meal of the school going child has fruits, vegetables, protein, complex carbohydrates and dairy. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Dubai: As the school reopens in the UAE, mothers are concerned about the kind of meals they must pack for their children resuming full school hours post COVID-19 pandemic.

The UAE Ministry of Health recently issued guidelines for school- children in its recently launched school lunch box programme that has several recipes for mothers to cook healthy and wholesome school meals for their kids. The School Lunch Box programme launched on August 22 will run until September 9.

Nouf Khamis Al Ali, Deputy Director of Health Education and Promotion Department at the Ministry of Health, said: “The school lunch bag is an essential part of a child’s diet and is also considered one of the main reasons that could pose a threat to children with obesity, through the wrong choices of the quality of diets provided by the parents.”

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Dr Noura Al Alawi

Dr Noura Al Alawi, Nutritionist, Al Towayya Children’s Specialty Center, Ambulatory Healthcare Services, said: “As children return to school, parents need to encourage healthy eating habits with homemade balanced meals, avoiding junk food. Children must get routine checks to monitor overall growth and identify and treat any medical issues at an early stage. Unfortunately, sometimes summer holidays negatively affect children in terms of lack of mobility and a healthy diet. .”

Immunity building

Echoing the sentiments of the health officials, Ruba Elhourani, nutritionist with the RAK Hospital pointed out that nutrition was one of the most important elements of immunity building in children but there were several other factors contributing to it. “During the year long period of online learning, children’s sleep pattern was disrupted as many of them were sleeping way past their bed time, getting up late, parents tended to be a bit careless about proper hydration as well. Added to this was wrong food-eating habits as chips, colas and sweets made their way back into the mealtimes. Children must get 8-10 hours or sleep, they must have at least 8 glasses of water and parents must make sure every meal the child has a proper balance of protein, carbohydrates and fats to be provide the ideal nutrition to help a child grow healthily and have strong disease-fighting capability.”

My Plate

According to the guidelines issued in My Plate, by the American Dietetics Association, for school going children, parents must ensure that each main meal of the child has fruits, vegetables, protein, complex carbohydrates and dairy, said Elhourani.

Ruba Elhourani

Elhourani explained, “If a child is taking two tiffins — one for breakfast and one for lunch- mothers must ensure that the food in that is colourful and has the right balance of all the food groups. Dense carbohydrates such as whole grains and legumes are rich in fibre, have a high glycemic index and boost metabolism.”

Citing the My Plate recommendations, Elhourani said, “The total meals that the child in the age group of 3-12 years has in day, must have 1-2 cups of fruit, 3-5 cups of vegetables, both rich in fibre and natural colours. Starch should be 5-6 cups, dairy 2-3 cups and protein about 3-4 servings.”

Fresh meals are necessary

Owing to the high temperatures, there is every chance of spoilage of food, which can have an adverse impact on the health of a child. Elhourani said, “Food must be prepped in the night but the actual cooking or assembling must take place in the morning as owing to the heat, there is a chance of food going putrid. “Mothers must ensure that their children have access to fresh meals during breakfast and lunch. They can use a compact ice-cooling box or packing.”

How can mothers be inventive about lunch boxes?

While being mindful of taste, mothers can draw up a weekly menu and make sure that the breakfast and lunch options of the child are not only simple and easy to eat dishes but also those that are also nutritionally balanced.

In the evening when mothers prep for morning tiffin, they can involve the child in the process to make him or her interested. Like cleaning fruits, shelling peas or marinating a piece of cottage cheese, chicken or meat for children for a wrap. That will keep a child invested in the meal planning process and help mothers to make choices based on their child’s preference.

Breakfast options

For instance, breakfast options in school could include a whole grain wrap with baked vegetables, beans and cheese, or a grilled chicken and vegetable wrap accompanied by yoghurt/milk and a whole fruit. The other alternative could be a multigrain bread vegetable and cheese. During or after each meal a child must have a glass or two of plain water. Mothers must not provide fruit juices as these are high in sugars.

What’s for lunch

Lunch could be whole grain pasta with vegetables, beans, grilled chicken or lamb and cheese. Alternatively, mothers can try different grains such as rice, barley or couscous or pseudo grains such as quinoa and buck wheat. Children can also carry salads with light dressings.

Elhourani said that parents are discouraged to pack nuts in school tiffins as these could cause some nut allergy or be a choking hazard.

“Children should have two servings per week of fish such as tuna or salmon. These can be included in the evening meals as it might be difficult to carry these in the school lunch box. Everything a child carries to school must be in a spoil proof condition, made fresh and have no tendency to denature with heat.”

Nutrition tips for mothers
Ensure you child’s lunch box is balanced and fresh with ingredients.
•Cook items for your child’s tiffin in the morning. One can prep in the night but actual cooking must be a few hours before the child eats to prevent any deterioration in the nutritional content of food items.
•Provide food in a compact ice bag to the child during the hot months to ensure food remains fresh and is not spoilt by the time the child reaches school.
•Proteins are a great source of energy. Choose lean meats and poultry, eggs, cottage cheese, yoghurt or soy based products. Ensure that at least one of these is part of your child’s breakfast or lunch option. Seafood or nuts must be avoided in school and provided in the other meals at home.
•Fruits: These are a natural source of fructose, enzymes and antioxidants. Gently train your child to stay away from processed sugar and junk foods and replace this with fruit in form of custard, smoothie or whole fruit. Stay away from fruit juices, as they are very high in calories and can lead to tendency to gain weight.
•Vegetables: Health ministry recommend at least 3-5 servings of vegetables in your child’s diet per day. This can be in the form of salad and cooked vegetables. Vegetables are a super source of vitamins and it is important to think of subtle ways of all kinds of vegetables ranging from the all the time favourites such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers and peas to the less popular ones such as broccoli, capsicum, beans and dark green leafy vegetables in your child’s diet.
•Whole Grains: These are low on glycemic index and high on fibre, providing a great metabolic boost to the child’s digestion Make sure to incorporate whole grains in your child’s diet including, brown or wild rice, popcorn, quinoa, and whole wheat bread. This is a high source of fibre and improves digestion. Stay away from refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white pasta, cakes, and pastry that are the main reason for obesity and diabetes.
•Dairy: Encourage your children to consume dairy that is low in fat as it is a good source of calcium. Yoghurt is a food source of probiotic and very beneficial to the gut microbiome of the child
•Water: the importance of plain drinking water cannot be overemphasised in a child’s daily diet. Mothers must not replace water with other substitutes such as fruit juices or smoothies. Child must consume about 6-8 glasses of water each day to prevent dehydration and fatigue, which can affect immunity.