Fit for Life

Tips on the nutritional needs of students from preschool to college


Students at East Vincent Elementary School enjoy healthy spinach smoothies during their lunch period. Foods with iron and Vitamin D are important elementary school aged children.

By Michilea Patterson, The Mercury

Parents and students are getting back into the routine of early mornings, homework and extracurricular activities. Back-to-school usually means schedules get just that much busier which is why healthful school breakfasts, lunches and snacks are important so students get the energy the need to get through the day and the proper nutrients for growth.

Just like coursework changes for students as they get older so do the nutritional needs of people as they age.

“If you think about a child that is growing versus someone who’s an adult, they’re going to have different nutritional needs,” said registered dietitian Rabiya Bower, an in-store nutritionist at the Giant Food Store in Flourtown.

Below, dietitians explain the food groups and nutrients important for students in preschool through college.



A bushel of carrots is on display. It’s important that students and parents remember to eat the rainbow during the school year which means adding color to meals such as with fruits and vegetables.

Bower said parents of preschool-aged children are going to really want to focus on fiber-filled foods such as fruits and vegetables.

“We know for any healthy child or adult, we want to make half of our plate fruits and vegetables. The preschool age is really a great time to foster a love of fruits and vegetables and to get into the habit of having fruits and vegetables as a snack,” she said.

Registered dietitian Margaret Moses, director of nutrition services at acac Fitness & Wellness Center of West Chester and Exton, said fiber requirements vary based on a child’s age. She said children ages 1 to 3 should get about 19 grams of fiber per day.

“Eat a rainbow and aim for color in the lunch box,” she said.

Moses also said that iron and Vitamin D are important for this age group because children are growing so fast during this time. One type of iron-rich food is eggs since the iron is found in the yoke. Moses suggested preparing hard-boiled eggs or another version of eggs for breakfast. She added that an egg sandwich is a great on-the-go option.

“There are also iron-fortified cereals,” Moses said, adding that the small boxes of cereals make great snacks for the lunch box.

Another nutrient essential for preschool-aged children is calcium because their bones and teeth are growing, Moses said. She said calcium doesn’t just have to come from dairy products for parents with lactose-intolerant children. Calcium is also found in broccoli, oranges and kidney beans.



A kindergarten class at Rupert Elementary School in Pottstown eat a salad of healthy greens they made using an indoor tower garden. As children age, their nutritional needs change.

Bower said calcium is a really important nutrient for children in this age group. Since the kids are growing so rapidly, they’ll really benefit from choices such as low-fat milk, yogurt and cheeses.

“Getting in your three to four servings of dairy per day is really essential for that age group to help prevent bone-related diseases when they’re adults or when they’re seniors,” she said.

Bower said a lot the nutrients necessary for preschool ages is also important for those in elementary school.

“Vitamin D and iron are important throughout childhood,” she said.



Children receive free backpacks filled with school supplies at a community event in Pottstown. As students and parents get back into a school routine, it’s important that children consume necessary nutrients for proper growth and function.

Bower said it’s important to make sure pre-teens and teenagers understand the importance of water and staying hydrated. She said once students get to middle school, they start to get more independent and start hanging out more with their friends outside of the home. Bower said she sees a lot of this age group hanging out at Starbucks or getting pizza with their friends on a Friday night.

“So it’s important that when they are at home, they are drinking plenty of water and not just sugar-sweetened beverages,” she said.

She said it’s just as important for students in high school to drink lots of water and not just depend on coffee throughout the entire day. Those in high school and really all children need a good breakfast on school days, Bower said. She said high schoolers should make sure to eat protein and fiber for breakfast since they’re up so early for school. She added that some quick and easy choices are fruit, peanut butter on toast and yogurt.

“Make sure they have that breakfast because it gives them energy throughout the day so they can focus in class,” Bower said, adding that children that eat a healthy breakfast tend to perform better in school and have less behavioral issues.

Moses said iron and calcium become very important for students in middle school.

“That’s where iron comes in even more so than during infancy and toddlers because girls are going to start menstruating and boys experience growth spurts,” she said.


Moses said many of the freshmen in college are on their own for the first time.

“Now they’re picking foods for themselves as where when they were home, there was more of a parental influence,” she said.

She added that college students are busy and on a budget so it’s common for them to grab foods that are cheap and easy.

“Ramen noodles are popular but they are so high in sodium and so low in nutrients,” Moses said.

Bower said it’s easy for freshmen to get off track when it comes to eating healthy at college.

“It’s the first time that it’s unlimited buffet food all the time. All your meals are unlimited. It’s typically buffet or cafeteria style, you just take what you want,” she said.

For this reason, Bower suggest college students keep portion sizes in mind when making their plates in the campus cafeteria and continuing to fill half their plate with fruits and vegetables.

Moses said a good tip for college students to remember is to eat foods close to nature.

“Hamburgers don’t appear in nature. Pizza doesn’t appear in nature,” she said adding that whole fruits and vegetables do appear in nature.

She said there are foods that are quick and inexpensive but still healthy. Some choices include packages of instant oatmeal and eggs. When eating on the campus cafeteria, she recommends students visit the salad bar and don’t make a habit of eating out all the time at restaurants on and near campus.

Moses said a good resource for parents to use when it comes to back-to-school nutrition is which is the government guidance on how to build a healthy plate during meal times.

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