Child's Play

What canteen food should your kid eat in school

Nutritional therapist Susie Rucker says children should get some protein during recess, as it helps stabilise their blood sugar levels, aids in the growth and repair of muscles and boosts brain function. A healthy snack would be something that is low
Nutritional therapist Susie Rucker says children should get some protein during recess, as it helps stabilise their blood sugar levels, aids in the growth and repair of muscles and boosts brain function. A healthy snack would be something that is low in added sugar and high in dietary fibre.ST FILE PHOTO

Teach your child how to distinguish healthy snacks from unhealthy ones

When Madam Karen Tang found empty rice cracker packets in her seven-year-old son's school bag, she flipped.

"I don't allow him to eat junk food, so I was angry when I found out that he had been eating rice crackers for recess," said the 37-year-old account executive.

"He gets $1.20 a day to spend on his snack, but I expected him to make healthier or more substantial choices, like fresh fruit or noodles."

Office manager Clara Ho, 42, had recess problems with her child, too.

OCCASIONAL TREAT

While I would not recommend roti prata as a proper meal, there's no reason why your child can't eat it once in a while... Ask him to order it with a side of protein, like chicken, and some veggies to make it more balanced.

MS SUSIE RUCKER, a nutritional therapist at healthcare centre Body With Soul.

When her daughter started primary school a few years ago, she had trouble finishing her lunch when she came home, she recalled.

"Eventually, we found out why - she had been filling up on fried chicken nuggets during recess.

"As much as I hated doing it, I cut her daily allowance so that she would have enough money only for a piece of fruit. And she took a sandwich from home," she said.

IF HE DOESN'T KNOW HOW TO MAKE SMART FOOD CHOICES

The last thing you want is to ban him from buying anything during recess. After all, you don't want to deprive him of the opportunity to be independent.

Instead, start by teaching him how to distinguish healthy snacks from unhealthy ones.

Ms Jaclyn Reutens, a clinical dietician at Aptima Nutrition & Sports Consultants, advises teaching your child to avoid snack packs, such as potato crisps and cracker-type titbits, battered foods like chicken nuggets, anything coated in chocolate, creamy or mayonnaise-laden foods, oily foods like mee goreng and bee hoon, pastries like cake and doughnuts, and sweetened drinks.

Acceptable recess foods include sandwiches with wholemeal or seeded bread, chicken or beef with rice and vegetables, soupy foods, milk, water, and 100 per cent fruit juice with no added sugar.

Also, teach him how to ask for less gravy or more vegetables.

Madam Marie Ang, 39, decided to simplify the decision-making process for her son when he started primary school this year.

"I found out what the canteen sold, and then told my son what to buy on the various days. Every day, I give him just enough money for that particular snack.

"For example, on Monday, he will buy a chicken burger. On Tuesday, it's soup-based noodles. On Wednesday, it's sushi, and so on."

IF HE KEEPS EATING THE SAME THING

Even if you've just found out that your child has been eating roti prata every day for the last three months, there is hope, said Ms Susie Rucker, a nutritional therapist at healthcare centre Body With Soul.

"While I would not recommend roti prata as a proper meal, there's no reason why your child can't eat it once in a while," she said. "Ask him to order it with a side of protein, like chicken, and some veggies to make it more balanced."

Children should get some protein during recess, said Ms Rucker, as it helps stabilise their blood sugar levels, aids in the growth and repair of muscles and boosts brain function.

If you would prefer your child to not eat a certain dish during recess, tell him it is a "treat" that he can enjoy only occasionally and when he is with you, said Ms Reutens.

IF HE'S NOT HUNGRY AT BREAKFAST AND STARVING AT RECESS

Madam Rae Chan's daughter is not a big breakfast eater. By recess, the nine-year-old is so hungry that she scoffs down a big plate of fried noodles. But the fattening dish often leaves her feeling bloated and lethargic by the end of the school day, noted the 41-year-old homemaker.

Ms Rucker said that parents can minimise this problem by giving their child the right food for breakfast. Some options are a hard- boiled egg or the smaller quail eggs, a piece of hard cheese with a few brown rice crackers, a small homemade berry smoothie or a homemade chicken patty made from minced chicken and vegetables.

These can be eaten quickly at home or while your child is on the way to school, and help stave off mid-morning hunger pangs that drive him to order big portions of unhealthy food.

IF HE EATS VERY SLOWLY

Tell the child not to order hot food, as these usually take a while to consume, said Ms Reutens.

"Cut fruit or sandwiches are a good idea - the queues at these stalls tend to move pretty quickly, and your kid should be able to finish his snack by the time recess is over," she said.

These foods are more filling than other foods that can be eaten quickly, such as chips and crackers.

But fruit and sandwiches can get boring, so your child may want to buy food that requires little to no chewing.

Ms Reutens suggests soya beancurd - as long as it is not drowned in sugar syrup - or low-fat yogurt.

Do, however, caution your child against ordering yogurt drinks, as these are usually high in sugar.

If your child takes ages to eat with a fork and spoon, go for meals that can be eaten with one utensil, like fried rice, noodles or soup.

IF HE LOADS UP ON SUGARY DRINKS

Ms Rucker believes that water is the best choice for children.

Your child can also order carrot or watermelon juice, which are nutritionally superior to fruit juices in tetra packs.

If he wants only to drink during recess, Milo is acceptable.

It is considered a "nutritious drink" said Ms Reutens, as it contains three to four teaspoons of sugar - compared with the seven or more teaspoons in a soft drink can - as well as iron, magnesium, B vitamins, and some protein.

IF HE'S SICK OF CANTEEN FOOD

Once in a while, you may decide to pack some food for your child to take to school.

A healthy snack, said Ms Reutens, would be something that is low in added sugar and high in dietary fibre. This will prevent that dreaded "sugar high" and keep his tummy satisfied until lunchtime.

Food safety is also important, so pack foods that do not spoil easily.

"Your best bets would be wholewheat crackers with a packet of low-fat milk, or a reduced-fat peanut butter or cheese sandwich made with wholemeal bread, an apple or a small box of raisins, and a pack of low-fat milk," she said.

• This article first appeared in Young Parents magazine. Young Parents, published by SPH Magazines, is available in both digital and print formats. Go to www.youngparents.com.sg/subscription to subscribe and for more parenting stories.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2016, with the headline 'Canteen capers'. Print Edition | Subscribe