We have all heard of burnout in adults, but what about burnout in our children? 

Have you noticed that your children are often tired and just don’t seem to have the age-appropriate energy levels, are they appearing negative and losing their confidence?

The demands placed on school aged children are huge. Necessarily so? That is open for debate. Nonetheless society has led us to believe that; the more we do, the better we will become. The question then arises; are we supporting our children appropriately to meet the high demands placed on their physical and emotional ability?

It goes without saying that good nutrition goes a long way to support a child’s overall growth and development. However what does this actually translate to on a day to day basis when we are packing lunch boxes or preparing meals?

How much should we be feeding our children?

We should start with understanding, on a scientific level, how much children need to eat. Compared with an adult, a child’s requirement for food is close to double an adult’s when calculated per kilogram of body weight. This can translate to a large volume of food every 24 hours. 

The reason for this high requirement for nutrition is multifactorial. A child needs to eat sufficiently to support the following demands;

  1. Survival.
  2. Growth. The average girl continues to grow until 16-18 years of age and the average boy continues to grow until 18-20 years of age.
  3. Activity. Even if a child does not partake in sport, children tend to always be less sedentary than adults. If a child does play sport then it can be up to three hours of additional activity a day.
  4. Concentration. We underestimate the impact that sitting in class and studying has on a child’s need for nutrition.

If a child has a significant load placed on them, then ensuring sufficient nutrition is one critical way that we, as parents, can get right in order to support them so that they can cope, thrive, excel and at the same time feel good.  

What does child burnout look like?

If your child demonstrates any of the following signs of burnout then start to consider the adequacy of their diet as well as allowing them a time out and break from their day to day demands.

  1. Poor sleep.
  2. Anxiety or fear.
  3. Physical exhaustion.
  4. Mental fatigue and trouble concentrating.
  5. Emotional detachment or apathy.
  6. Lack of creativity.
  7. Procrastination and low motivation.
  8. Avoiding situations.
  9. Negativity.
  10. Irritability.

So, I can hear you asking; how does one ensure that my child eats enough despite their reluctance to eat, as, let’s be honest, many children tend to be fussy with food at the best of times?

Getting your child to eat right

Get advice for or explain to your children, in an age appropriate way, why they need to eat sensibly and the benefits thereof. Reinforce this by illustrating the difference in how they feel on days when they eat well compared to the days when they don’t eat well.

Routine. This is critical to get right. The average child should be consuming nutrition six times a day and every 2-3 hours. This will include; three meals (breakfast, lunch and supper) plus three snacks.

The three meals are where the bulk of their nutrition should come from with the snacks being just enough to see them through until the next meal. Very often in my practice I see that children are given snacks that are too large and/or at the incorrect times resulting in a reduced appetite for the food served at a meal time. It is important to space their food intake appropriately.

This routine will depend on each individual child’s school schedule as well as extramural timetable. No two children are necessarily the same. With the right guidance it can help to be quite strategic with nutrition and when a child eats what, depending on this routine.

What should your children be eating?

Be targeted with what food is offered. Try to avoid sending to school or offering a buffet selection of food items in the hope that something will get eaten. This not only overwhelms a child, but they will never eat what they are supposed to in preference for what they like. A child needs to be given direction and specific guidance on what to eat and when to eat it. It can be useful to label the different food containers that get sent to school with them; one for first break, one for second break and a third for after school for example. The timing as to when they eat what is beneficial to their wellbeing.

Send an extra snack to have on the way to school. Most kids leave the house so early that breakfast ends up being at around 5.30AM and typically the first break at school is only after 10.00AM. This is one of my biggest frustrations with working with school-aged children as this is far too long for a child to go without nutrition. Having a snack in the car and on the way to school helps to narrow this gap, especially if they are doing early morning sport.

When it comes to deciding what to feed our children there is one fundamental principle that we need to apply for the majority of the time. That principle is quite simple: to provide them with food that is as close to its original and natural state as possible. 

Foods in their natural state have a higher nutrient density; they are more concentrated in nutrition. Real foods do not contain harmful chemical additives like preservatives and colourants. Try to not get swayed by the marketing  and convenience meal or snack options that flood the food market. All chemical additives in food affect a child’s concentration, behaviour as well as energy levels. These can come from both sweet and savoury food items.

Children need less variety than one would think and do not get as bored with food as do adults. In fact, there are probably only a handful of snack items that children need day to day that fit within the above criteria. These include;

  • Fresh and dried fruit
  • Popcorn
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Biltong
  • White cheese
  • Plain milk and plain cultured yoghurt

And don’t forget lots of water throughout the day rather than sweetened fruit juices and fizzy drinks.

See the results

Once you have established a daily routine for your children that include healthy snacks and 3 balanced meals based on fresh, wholesome ingredients, you will be rewarded with energetic, enthusiastic and happy children – well at least for most of the time 😊


Kerryn Wuth RD(SA) is a Registered Dietician from Nutrition Innovated, an associate dietetic practice based on KwaZulu-Natal. An expert in human nutrition, Kerryn shares her secrets to tailoring nutritional intake to suit individual needs.

September 12, 2022